March 3, 2017

‘Literally running for their lives:’ director speaks on refugees and resettlement efforts

Heidi Smith, director of Catholic Charities Indianapolis’ Refugee and Immigrant Services, talks on Feb. 17 to nearly 70 members of the Catholic Business Exchange on the lives of refugees, the history of refugee resettlement in the United States, and the role of the Church in refugee resettlement in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Heidi Smith, director of Catholic Charities Indianapolis’ Refugee and Immigrant Services, talks on Feb. 17 to nearly 70 members of the Catholic Business Exchange on the lives of refugees, the history of refugee resettlement in the United States, and the role of the Church in refugee resettlement in Indianapolis. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

On Jan. 27, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugees from entering the United States for four months.

While the ban was blocked by a federal judge on Feb. 4, refugee resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities Indianapolis’ Refugee and Immigrant Services (RIS) in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have been left uncertain of their future, especially with a revised ban expected soon, but not announced prior to the publication of The Criterion.

Heidi Smith, director of RIS, spoke to nearly 70 people on refugee resettlement at a meeting of the Catholic Business Exchange at the Northside Knights of Columbus facility in Indianapolis on Feb. 17.

“As we’ve heard so much about refugee resettlement in the news lately, it can be kind of hard to figure out what exactly is going on, especially when it’s a topic that has only come up in the news in the last few years,” Smith said.

‘They’re literally running for their lives’

Refugees are not people simply seeking a better life in America, Smith explained.

“Refugees are pushed from their homes because they have nowhere to go,” she said. “When I ask them how they knew it was time to leave, … for most of them it was when the war was literally at their doorstep. Their village was lost, or they had homes destroyed, or they had family members who were brutally killed in front of their eyes.

“They’re literally running for their lives. … It’s really a different kind of faith journey, because they literally have absolutely nothing else—they’ve left their homes, their jobs, they’ve left everything that they’ve ever known.”

She explained that refugees have three lives: the life they knew in their homeland, their life waiting to be resettled, and their life once they are resettled.

“In that second phase, it’s a life of waiting,” said Smith. “Sometimes that can be [in] a refugee camp in a neighboring country. Sometimes that can be [in] a city in a neighboring country where they’re under the radar … as illegal residents.

“They find themselves in limbo because they can’t stay where they are. They don’t know what will come next. Their dream would be for peace to come and for them to go to their homeland, but for so many that opportunity doesn’t come. Some people live in refugee camps for decades.”

‘ “Refugee” is a very specific status’

Smith explained that the concept of refugee resettlement began after World War II. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded in December 1950 in response to the number of displaced people in Europe after World War II.

“The goal was repatriation,” said Smith. “That remains the top priority today, and that’s why only less than 1 percent of the around 21 million refugees are resettled in a foreign country.”

Refugee and Immigrant Services started in 1975, the same year that refugee resettlement in the United States began as result of the Vietnam War, she said. As boats with Vietnamese people fleeing their country showed up on beaches of other nations, said Smith, “The UNHCR said, ‘They’re coming into countries that don’t really have stable enough economies to accommodate them. … Maybe they can be taken to countries where they can get jobs and contribute.’ ”

Refugee resettlement was originally intended to be a short-term solution, with the hope of refugees returning to their homes when peace allowed, Smith said.

“But refugees, because they have had so little control of their lives for so long, the moment they’re able to get a job and raise a family, they run with it,” she said. “They don’t want to be dependent on anyone else.”

The U.S. is now one of 28 countries that accept refugees. But the designation as “refugee” is difficult to obtain, Smith explained.

“I know a lot of times in the news ‘refugees’ and ‘immigrants’ can be used interchangeably,” she said. “But ‘refugee’ is a very specific immigration status.

“A person given that status has to prove that they were direct targets in their homeland based on their race, ethnicity, political background, religion or membership in a particular social group.”

Once that designation is established, the next step is to determine the country a refugee will be placed in for resettlement.

“It’s not easy to get resettled anywhere, and it’s particularly not easy to get resettled into the United States as a refugee,” Smith said. “That is because security is a priority to all of us, and to [the refugees] as well. [The government] wants to make sure that anybody who is coming in is exactly who they say they are.

“So the security screening for the refugees, while they say that takes 18-24 months, typically lasts well past that. The Department of Defense, Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Counterterrorism are all checking out these people. That is a very difficult process.”

Smith pointed out that the refugees being admitted into the U.S. “aren’t people who decided to come—these are people who are handpicked out of 21 million refugees. If there is any question about an individual, they will not get the opportunity to resettle in the United States.”

‘So excited for the opportunity to be here’

Once cases are approved by the State Department, Smith explained, that agency contracts with nine national resettlement agencies, most of which are religiously affiliated, the largest of which is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Each of the nine national agencies has hundreds of local affiliates [like RIS] where they designate cases to,” she said.

Refugee and Immigrant Services staff members or volunteers go to the airport to pick up refugees assigned to be resettled in Indianapolis, and drive them to a temporary apartment furnished with donated items.

The refugees then begin the busy matter of assimilating into American society. They attend classes offered by RIS on learning English, job search skills, cultural orientation classes, how to set up a bank account, balance a checkbook and more, plus receive job placement assistance.

“Most refugees are able to get a job within one to three months after arriving, which is good, because the financial assistance that’s provided to them to cover rent and utilities and basic needs is very short term, just for a couple of months,” said Smith.

“So it’s not only good for the refugees, it’s good for our economy, because refugees are hardworking, resilient people. We want people to understand the goodness of who these people are and what they bring. They’re so excited for the opportunity to be here, to learn English, become American and start their new lives.”

Last year, RIS resettled 676 refugees from six countries, about 500 of whom were joining family members already resettled in Indianapolis.

“So when we hear executive orders that are even doing a temporary block, it puts these families in such a state of worry, not knowing if they’re ever going to be reunited with their families again,” Smith explained.

Another cause for concern she cited was that the 110,000 refugees that Congress allowed for the federal budget year that began last October has been decreased to 50,000.

“[Refugee and Immigrant Services] operates on per capita federal funding,” Smith explained. “And if we’re getting less refugees coming in—and also a four-month period where we’re not having any come in—that leaves the future of our program in question, wondering how we’ll sustain ourselves, particularly not knowing what will happen past those four months.”

While those working for RIS anxiously await the text of the new executive order, Smith said the agency is not seeking the in-kind donations of furniture and household goods it usually requests.

“We’re asking for financial contributions, so that we can sustain ourselves throughout this time of uncertainty,” she said. “When refugees do start coming again, we want to have the same talented staff available to serve them. And we ask you to contact your representatives to let them know the goodness that refugees bring into our community.”

‘So touched by their faith’

Jim Liston, founder of the Catholic Business Exchange and a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, found the talk to be “timely and very interesting.”

“As most people, we don’t have a clue as to what the reality of the refugees’ plight is,” he said. “All we get are the soundbites at the 6 o’clock news.

“It would be wonderful if every person in every parish could hear [Smith’s] message.”

One person present at the talk who is aware of the plight of the refugees was Alice Steppe, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.

“All of my grandparents were immigrants, so I know some of that story,” she said.

Steppe has been involved in helping the refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in her parish.

“As a business woman and realtor, I’ve gotten to know the families. … One man looked at four houses, and he said, ‘I want this one, because this is where my Marian shrine will go.’ I have been so touched by their faith.”

Hearing of the refugees’ experiences has impacted Steppe as well.

“When I hear the stories from their mouths, I just can’t believe what they’ve been through,” she said. “What a privilege it is to be involved in some small way in their lives. …

“And they’re so motivated. I love the energy they bring to our liturgy. Now they’re involved in the Mass, they’re readers. I see them being integrated into our lives, and they’re so excited to be American.

“[The Church’s] social teaching is huge. It forms us. It’s a part of that hospitality as Catholic Americans.”

(To hear Smith’s talk, log on to For more information on Refugee and Immigrant Services or to donate, log onto

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