Sparked by the war in Ukraine, a West Virginia interfaith ministry is renewing its efforts to bring refugees to the Mountain State. The process is overwhelming, with mountains of red tape to cut through.
However, the ministry director, Charleston Rabbi Victor Urecki, says there is also overwhelming support to help provide new homes and lives for those displaced by war.
Randy Yohe talked with Rabbi Urecki on the passion involved in this refugee assistance effort.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Yohe: Rabbi first of all, tell us about the makeup and mission of the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry.
Urecki: WVIRM, the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry began in October of 2015. We came together when we saw what was going on in Syria. And it was a group of Jews, Muslims, Christians, people of all faiths. And what began as discussion eventually became an organization with the dedication and the mission of trying to bring refugees to our area.
Yohe: I know you started to get your ducks in a row to try to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. What happened that made that effort collapse?
Urecki: We just thought we could just bring people here. But we found out we have to work hand in glove with both the State Department as well as one of the nine non governmental organizations that are in charge of resettling refugees. So after a year of paperwork, answering questions, interviewing people around the community to make sure that we can do this, we finally got approved in 2016. What we found out is that every year in October, the administration determines how many refugees can come to the United States. We got approved when it was 85,000. However, the Trump administration immediately, by executive order, dropped it down to 56,000. We got a call from the State Department that said because the numbers are so low, we were the newest city to come in, we would not be able to resettle anyone. President Biden immediately raised that to 65,000. Not as much as we would want, but certainly a significant bump up. In fiscal year 2022, he raised that number to 125,000.
Yohe: Now you’re watching the war in Ukraine. That crisis is just as heartbreaking and the challenges or perhaps even more complicated. First off, those fleeing their homes in Ukraine are not refugees, but displaced persons. Explain the difference.
Urecki: Most people when they leave, they’re forced to flee out of fear for their lives. In a situation like Ukraine they are really displaced citizens. Their intention is not to become refugees. They want to go back home. At a certain point, as the war continues to drag on, as cities become completely devastated, people can’t return home. That’s when a family has to make that painful decision. “What do we do?” And then they apply for refugee status and hope that they can be resettled in a different country.
Yohe: Talk about the numbers and the passions of West Virginians who want to help bring refugees here.
Urecki: When we could no longer bring refugees into our area, we just became an advocacy group. In 2021, when we saw what was happening in Afghanistan, we were starting to get calls from West Virginians saying these are people that helped our soldiers. “They saved the lives of U.S. soldiers that risked their lives. Can we do anything for them?” And then when we saw what’s happening in Ukraine, we got inundated with calls from people saying, “Can we settle them here?” And at that point we realized we need to see if we can become again more than just an advocacy group.
Yohe: Not in a refugee resettlement state, but the refugee resettlement city of Charleston. Talk about that.
Urecki: We will be working with the NGO, the Episcopal migration ministry. We need to work within a radius of about 40 miles because what we do is recreate the infrastructure to have a successful integration of all refugees. We have found them an apartment, which is near a grocery store, which is also nearby employment because they need to be employed within 90 to 120 days. We need to make sure their children are immunized. That there are English as a second language courses available for both the adults as well as children. And we educate our state officials to let them know the economic benefits of refugees and how they benefit long term, the viability and economic sustainability of any community that they become part of.
Yohe: And there is an economic benefit.
Urecki: These are people that, what they have done to survive and to get to this country is nothing short of miraculous. They will work hard and their children will work hard.
Since 1980, since the Refugee Resettlement Act, not a single terrorist act has ever been committed on U.S. soil by a person coming through this program. They take the jobs because they can pass background checks, they can also pass drug tests, they will work hard, they will see that their children are educated. And suddenly the next thing you know their kids are going to colleges and universities becoming doctors and integrating fully into American life.
Yohe: You’ve talked about the red tape involved, but what are the salient points that must be established to bring refugees to Charleston, West Virginia,
Urecki: Is there affordable housing for the refugees, is there, for the families, the ability for them to have a community? One of the reasons why we I think we’re so successful is we have a very vibrant Muslim community here in Charleston. Will there be legislation that might hurt refugee resettlement status? Are there schools nearby for the children? Are there grocery stores? Do we have the transportation necessary? Is there enough medical situations for them to be able to have their children vaccinated, etc?
Yohe: What are your aims and goals moving forward?
Urecki: We want to build interest and capacity. I think long term, again, is to save lives. And hopefully by sometime in 2023 we will be able to resettle refugees here in our area and show what refugees can do positively in our community. When I explain what refugees can do for our city, and for our state, you get from people this idea that I want to help. And not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also the right thing for our state.
Yohe: Rabbi Victor Urecki with the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry, thank you so much.
TAG: That was Rabbi Victor Urkecki speaking with government reporter Randy Yohe. Urecki has served as Rabbi and spiritual leader of Charleston’s B’nai Jacob Synagogue since 1986.