Refugee Orientation: The First Year

July 27, 2016

Graziella Loele, an Americorps and Jesuit volunteer organizes cultural orientation classes at Catholic Charities

More than a dozen people from across the world gathered at Catholic Charities for one in a series of classes meant to introduce newly arriving refugees to everything American - from how to get a library card to coping with the depression that can begin when culture shock sets in.

Catholic Charities is one of three Volunteer Agencies, nonprofits that contract with the federal government to resettle refugees across the United States. A team of caseworkers help them set up an apartment, apply for jobs, enroll their kids in school and much more. A big part of the resettlement process is preparing new arrivals for the many intricacies of life in the United States.

“We are trying to provide the best services to our clients because they moved from a county where maybe they don’t have all the systems that we have in this country,” said Ahmed Ali, a reception and placement specialist with Catholic Charities.

This is the first in a series of 10 classes the nonprofit offers. It covers Role of the Refugee Resettlement Agency & Refugee Status, Cultural Adjustment, Housing-Home Maintenance & Home safety, Health & Safety, Education, Employment, Budgeting and Personal Finance, Transportation and U.S. Laws. The first day is an orientation.


Refugee Status

Graziella Loele, an Americorps and Jesuit volunteer who organizes the classes, explained the legal steps to becoming a permanent resident and sponsoring family who may have been left behind.

Refugees can sponsor family using an Affidavit of Relationship form, which allows parents, children and spouses to join their loved ones. They can use the Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition form to sponsor their spouse or children. Loele recommends submitting both the AOR and I-730 forms because the forms go into different federal departments.

The application is free, and the resettlement case managers can help begin the process. The process for applying for permanent residence is a lot more complicated.

Refugees must have lived in the U.S. for one year before applying to become a Permanent Resident (Green Card holder). The resettlement case manager can recommend an authorized immigration specialist, who will walk applicants through the remaining steps.

Catholic Charities periodically hosts Refugee Adjustment events, during which volunteer immigration attorneys meet with applicants from across the county to start the process. The next event is scheduled for July 30.

With the help of the authorized immigration specialist, applicants for permanent residency must make an appointment at a doctor’s office to fill out the Vaccination Check form I-693. But only a civil surgeon doctor can sign off the paperwork. That part costs money.

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities
Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities

There’s still more paperwork to complete. The application for permanent residency, Form I-485, can only be completed by an immigration specialist. That application will require two passport-style photos. And that costs about $10.  

The application also requires a copy of yet another form, the Form I-94, proof of refugee status. Then there’s the Form G-325A, with biographical information.

When all those are complete, the applicant sends off the paperwork and waits for a notice from Citizenship and Immigration Services that the application has been received. They will schedule an appointment to take fingerprints. After that, they’ll schedule an interview letter if there need to be any clarification. Six months later, applicants will receive a letter in the mail telling them whether the application was approved.

Travel Loans

Refugees often are provided loans to fly to the United States. After six months, International Organization for Migration will send the new arrivals a bill in the mail. If applicants can’t afford to pay the bill, they need to contact IOM to discuss their case. But if applicants cannot speak English, they are responsible for having someone who speaks English to interpret the call.

Resettlement Assistance

Volunteer Agency staff are often the first people refugees meet when they arrive in Portland. For the first 90 days they help find housing and furniture, pay the rent, supply groceries for the first week and provide pocket money. They perform a home safety and sanitation check and cultural orientation classes. They help parents enroll their kids in school, set up payment plans to repay travel loans, apply for the social security cards, help with the federal address change forms, conduct home visits and set up the medical screening at Mid County Clinic. Mid County clinic provides a medical screening, immunizations and primary care appointments.

The State of Oregon Department of Human Services’ Refugee Case Services Project provide 8 months of assistance. During that time, refugees receive cash and food assistance, English classes and job training at Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization

It’s a lot to take in for refugees who just arrived. Li En Hui, from China, has been here just three weeks.

“It was really helpful because before I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “I would recommend this class to my newcomer friends because it helps you to know more about where you are and the environment of this country.”