KUOW | Refugee advocates scramble to help while they still can

The effects of President Trump’s travel ban have not been limited to immigrants entering the U.S. Nonprofit groups that resettle refugees are also facing uncertainty.

Chitra Handstad is executive director of World Relief Seattle, one of the largest non-profit groups that resettle refugees in the Seattle area. “I remember the day the order was signed and I went around the office, had tears in my eyes,” says Handstad. “It felt like somebody had punched us in the stomach.”

Washington state is one of the top ten states for resettling refugees. The Trump administration has indicated it plans to drastically cut back the number of refugees allowed into the country. Last year, World Relief Seattle helped resettle about one thousand refugees. Some of them came from the seven Muslim-majority countries listed in the executive order.

World Relief Seattle works with local churches and volunteers to help refugees find homes, apply for a driver’s license, or set up appointments.

Marwal Frotan and his family came to Seattle last December. Back home in Afghanistan he worked with American troops, which made him a target. “The Taliban and the other groups,” he says, “they already know about us. When they got a chance, they will kill us.”

Frotan hopes to find a job doing security.

Refugees have also turned here to find work. But just weeks ago, when the travel ban came out, World Relief started scaling back its operations.

One of the first things Handstad did was deactivate its network of volunteers. She also looked at laying off caseworkers. Then a federal district court blocked the ban. “And we just had to ramp up because we had 111 coming in February…our caseworkers are just in full emergency mode,” said Handstad. “They’re running around like crazy—in a great way. We were thrilled!”

Handstad says the past few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster. The temporary restraining order against the ban has provided some relief. But the future remains uncertain. Like most resettlement organizations, World Relief relies on federal funds based on the number of refugees they serve. In this case, they make up 70 percent of the organization’s budget. The agency started fundraising to help cover the shortfall. What worries Handstad most is losing caseworkers—they are the infrastructure of the organization.

“We would lose all those all those years of relationship…the DSHS, Social Security Administration, all the corporations that we’ve built relationship with for our employment services. Our caseworkers are hands on.”

For now, caseworkers continue to help refugees navigate their new home. Handstad says things are changing so fast it’s hard know how things are going to land. All she can do for now, while the executive order is on hold, is enjoy the reprieve.

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