‘Enormous amount of uncertainty’ blankets Louisville refugee resettlement agencies

Zeljana Javorek first arrived in Louisville in 1999 as a refugee fleeing war in Bosnia.

When she first resettled in the U.S., her head swirled with questions: Would she like it in the U.S.? Would she be able to learn the language? Would her two young sons be able to adjust to a new way of life?

Her fears were quickly quelled by the support and guidance she received from Catholic Charities of Louisville Inc., a local organization that works to resettle the hundreds of refugees that arrive in Louisville each year.

But the staff and funding that helped Javorek — and refugees like her — could be dwindling.

With uncertainty surrounding the continued admittance of refugees to the United States and a decrease in funding over the past six months, cuts had to be made — mostly to staff that provided direct case management to refugees.

Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services office that works to resettle and support refugees in Louisville boasted a staff of 46 in January.

Now, they’re a staff of 28.

Javorek, who now manages the English language training classes she was once a student in 17 years ago, said it was hard to see some of her colleagues leave.

“We were one big family. It’s a team of people — natives and refugees. And we all work toward the same common goal,” Javorek said. Seeing dedicated and passionate coworkers who made a positive impact leave “is really sad.”

Cuts to staff and much-needed funding have been some of the long-term effects local refugee resettlement agencies have endured over the uncertainty of two travel bans and a drop in the ceiling of the total number of refugees allowed to enter the country.

“There’s still an enormous amount of uncertainty,” said Lisa DeJaco Crutcher, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Louisville Inc. “It’s really unclear right now what this program is going to look like, (and) how many people it’s going to be able to help over the course of the next few years.”

On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that banned refugees from entering the country for 120 days and any citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen or Somalia from traveling to the country for 90 days.

After much chaos at airports and the courts freezing the January order, Trump signed a new, revised mandate that excluded Iraqi refugees among other changes.

The new order still slashed the number of refugees allowed to enter the country from the 110,000 set by former President Barack Obama to less than half at 50,000.

As a result, a number of refugees that have been eligible for help from Catholic Charities of Louisville and other organizations have dwindled.

At the start of this fiscal year, Catholic Charities of Louisville was on track to outpace the numbers of refugees it resettled in 2016. Monthly numbers were consistently higher until March.

That month, only 89 refugees were resettled. The previous March has seen 149. Numbers dropped for the month of May, too, from 148 in May 2016 to 73 this year.

The amount of funding Catholic Charities of Louisville has also dropped along with the number of refugees. In 2016, funding was at nearly $1.5 million. This year, it’s been reduced to $862,650.

“The two things go in parallel,” DeJaco Crutcher said. “Funding is basically attached to the refugees. So, if there are no refugees coming in to be served, then there’s also no funding made available to serve them.”

But two weeks ago, these organizations received some good news.

Just in time, the U.S. Department of State lifted the cap that allowed only 50,000 refugees to enter the U.S. As of late May, 45,732 refugees — 91 percent of the previous total allotted for this fiscal year — had already been resettled across the U.S., according to the Department of State’s website.

“The decision to lift that cap is wonderful news,” said DeJaco Crutcher. “From our perspective, the decision to reduce the number of refugees coming into the country is a human tragedy.”

Kentucky Refugee Ministries has also continued to resettle refugees, but its numbers have been affected in the long-term, John Koehlinger, executive director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries’ Louisville office, said in an email. Even though the executive orders were blocked, screening of refugees overseas has “more or less stopped,” he said.

“As a result, there is a dwindling number of refugees in the pipeline who are cleared for travel to the U.S,” Koehlinger said.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries’ Louisville office was approved to receive 680 refugees through the fiscal year, and has resettled or has travel notices for 483 as of mid-June. The Lexington office was approved for 350 refugees and has resettled or received travel notices for 270.

Koehlinger said they hope to receive refugees through the summer to come closer to the original arrival projections.

The future of resettlement agencies remains uncertain as the travel ban is still debated in the courts. On June 1, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the president’s travel ban.

Javorek said she is trying to stay positive and hopes that refugee resettlements return to normal soon. In the meantime, Javorek said she continues to learn from the refugees she works with.

“If it was possible we would choose a happy life in our own countries, with our families and the languages and the culture we identify with,” Javorek said. “Learning about their tradition and what they’re able to do helps me also understand … other cultures and how accepting others can make a better and more prosperous community.”

Reporter Tessa Weinberg can be reached at 502-582-4168 or tweinberg@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Tessa_Weinberg.

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