The Morning Report
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After returning from service in the Vietnam War, Bob Montgomery felt he owed something to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who were displaced by the conflict.
He started working as a resettlement case worker at the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee, a global refugee assistance agency that helps people fleeing violent conflict resettle into their new homes around the world.
More than 30 years later, he is director of the San Diego IRC, overseeing almost 60 employees and hundreds of volunteers from its office in City Heights, the center of San Diego’s refugee community. He has watched a spike in refugee arrivals in the last few years.
In 2007, his agency resettled about 400 refugees, twice that number in 2008, and roughly 1,300 this year — most Iraqis fleeing the current war. Between 4,000 and 5,000 refugees arrived in San Diego from around the world in the last year.
We sat down with him to discuss recent trends in refugee arrivals to San Diego, how his work has changed over the decades, and the challenges recent refugees have faced when readjusting to life in San Diego.
The majority of refugees coming today are from Iraq?
Yes, and most go to El Cajon, because there was an existing community out there of Christians, who are religious minorities in Iraq. But many of them are highly skilled. Many of them came with high expectations.
They were professionals — doctors, engineers — in their own country and came to an economic environment where even American professionals were struggling to find jobs, so that was a huge disappointment to them.
Many of them have had to take a step back and understand that initially they may have to do things they didn’t anticipate with the knowledge that, when the economy grows and things get better, they can slowly move back to what their expectations were of life here. That’s quite different from what it was years ago. Again, the economy dictates a lot of what our programming is.
A lot of what you do is also dictated by international conflicts that produce refugees and that you can’t control. With each new group of refugees from a different country, you obviously have to readjust to different cultural norms and nuances particular to each group. How do you do that on the turn of a dime?
We take advantage of the fact that IRC has an overseas arm and we can gain knowledge about cultures and expectations. We also hire people from those refugee groups to help guide us along.
But people are people. They want to get help and get their lives restarted. So it doesn’t matter if they’re Christian or Buddhist or Muslim, or if they come from an agrarian background or urban background. They want their children to get an education and be productive. Those tenets remain the same and we can deal with that. We do have to look at the nuances though. Can we get a Muslim a job where there’s alcohol or pork? Can we get somebody who came from an agrarian or fishing background accustomed to taking the bus and going to a light manufacturing job?
Aside from Iraq, where else are San Diego’s refugees coming from?
Right now Iraqis are No. 1, then Burmese, then east Africans — mostly Somalis — and Bhutanese. Historically we’ve had lots of southeast Asians, eastern Europeans, Afghans and Iranians.
How is the work that you’re doing now different from the work that you did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago?
When I first started it was with a wave of Vietnamese and southeast Asian refugees who were coming in very quickly. Mostly they had been airlifted into Camp Pendleton and they were filtering into the community. Our mission was pretty narrow then, it was just to assist those people to get employment and move on. Now we see a much more holistic approach to things.
Now the average stay of a refugee at a refugee camp is 17 years, so people have been denied — and their kids have been denied — an education. Adults have been denied the ability to be productive, so you almost have to restart their lives because of the fact that they’ve been dependent on international organizations to help them. They get here and the expectation is that they help themselves.
What is the first contact a refugee would make with you?
We see two types of families coming in: families reuniting with families already here, and families who have no connections to the U.S.
If they have no connection, we’re meeting them at the airport. Our staff takes them to the home we’ve found and starts the whole process of resettlement.
If they’re reuniting, their families want to meet them, so we encourage that. When they have a family we usually work together with a relative to try and identify housing and that sort of thing.
In San Diego, the vast majority of the families we resettle are family reunification cases. San Diego is still a tough economy, and the cost of living is a little steep, so without some kind of family help it can be challenging for people to go it alone. That’s one of the reasons why IRC doesn’t send a lot of the cases with no family here.
Do people go back?
Some do, in very small numbers. We’d heard there were some really big disappointments in the Iraqi community. Some of their expectations were dashed when they came here, and they thought it would be best to go back. That number is few. The vast majority of refugees are here to stay, which is why we need sufficient resources to put them on a path to sufficient resettlement, so they’re not languishing and having doubts about their decision. Doubts aren’t particularly healthy for people who really can’t go back, because they’d be putting their lives in danger.
— Interview conducted and edited by ADRIAN FLORIDO