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USCRI's New Office in Des Moines Resettles First Refugee Family
On a cold February evening, the staff and volunteers from the Des Moines Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) huddled in the warm lobby of the international airport, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a Burmese Chin refugee family. Their excitement was understandable: the arriving family is the first to be resettled through the newly opened USCRI field office.
Among those waiting at the airport were the arriving family’s close relatives (pictured right with USCRI Des Moines staff). The husband, wife, and two children—also refugees from Burma resettled in Des Moines three years ago through the U.S. resettlement program—were thrilled when they learned of their relatives’ arrival. They could hardly wait, after years of being apart, to finally share a meal together.
At around 8 that evening, the father, mother, and 10-month-old daughter appeared on the escalator. They looked exhausted from the long, multi-transfer trip from Malaysia, where they lived as refugees. But as soon as they caught a glimpse of the familiar faces of their relatives smiling at them from the airport lobby below, their eyes lit up.
“Getting the opportunity to witness that moment when the family was coming down the escalator and see their reaction made all the work we did behind the scenes worth it,” exclaimed Valerie Stubbs (second from right in the photo above), director of the USCRI Des Moines Field Office.
Leading up to the arrival date, the USCRI Des Moines team found and furnished a safe and clean apartment for the newcomers. They browsed thrift stores for a lamp, baby crib, and a couch and stocked the apartment with new bed sheets, pillows, and a selection of culturally appropriate foods from the local Asian market. The local community donated much of the furniture in advance, including a bed, kitchen table, chairs, dishes, utensils, and a rice cooker, to name a few. The overall effect was humble but homey.
After exchanging long hugs, accompanied by lots of tears of joy, the families (pictured right with USCRI staffers) drove together—the baby buckled up in a car seat for the first time—with the USCRI Des Moines team to the new apartment. They instantly fell in love with their two-bedroom home—but not before asking, through an interpreter, whether another family was occupying the other bedroom.
“They were so happy,” recalled Carrie Cavanaugh (front row, far right), coordinator of the Preferred Communities program at USCRI Des Moines. “They never saw an apartment of that size meant for just one family.”
Originally from Burma, Du Lia, 33, and his wife Me Tin, 23, fled the violence in their native country in 2007 and sought shelter in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where their daughter, Suang Aye Par, was born. With hundreds of thousands of people having escaped the country’s military junta’s rule, Burma, also known as Myanmar, is one of the world’s largest sources of refugees. Most of those forced to leave their homes seek shelter in nearby Thailand, where they spend years, and often decades, living as refugees in remote camps. Others, like Du Lia and his family, made their way to Malaysia, a country ranked in USCRI’s World Refugee Survey as one of the world’s worst places for refugees because of its disregard for the protection of the rights of displaced individuals.
For many refugees who cannot return home due to prolonged conflict and political instability in their native country, their only chance for a promising future is through resettlement in the United States, Europe, or other parts of the world. USCRI helps those who have fled war and persecution and have lost everything start a new life in America. As soon as refugees arrive in the United States, voluntary agencies like USCRI are there to guide them toward becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of their new community.
Once the home orientation at the Des Moines apartment was completed—which consisted of showing the parents how to turn on the stove, boil water, operate the washer and dryer, and familiarize themselves with other Western amenities—the USCRI team left the two families to enjoy the long-awaited moment of sharing a meal together.
Welcoming the first refugee family resettled through their office made the USCRI Des Moines staffers view their day-to-day work in a whole new light. “When the family first walked into their new apartment and saw it furnished and filled with toys for their child, you could see on their faces that they instantly felt at home,” Stubbs exclaimed. “Seeing the human side of our work makes what we do even more meaningful!”
Read more stories about refugees from around the world finding hope in the United States >>