Jourgensen: When Ukrainian refugees come to America, Lynn will be waiting

This article was published 1 year(s) and 6 month(s) ago.

Ukrainians driven from their homes by Vladimir Putin, with their children in one arm and anything else they can carry in the other, will eventually come to America. Lynn, with its history of welcoming refugees, will embrace them.

Refugee resettlement agencies and the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI) help people around the world who have been driven from their homes settle in the United States.

Organizations like the New American Association of Massachusetts on the Lynnway help refugees live independently and support themselves. Founded in 2002, its work spans employment and education opportunities and immigration assistance with Executive Director Natasha Soolkin and her staff running an office that resembles a miniature United Nations, with clients speaking 21 languages. 

I interviewed Soolkin many times in the last 20 years, including 2016 when Soolkin and then-state Rep. (now Senator) Brendan Crighton hosted a conference with panelists discussing ways Massachusetts Muslim community members could feel comfortable coming forward with ideas and any grievances that they may have. 

Crighton succinctly summarized Lynn’s history of welcoming refugees when he said: “The city of Lynn has always been welcoming to newly-immigrated people.”

A year earlier, I joined Soolkin and Fatna Mohamud, a refugee from the African region of Darfur injured in a war there, who clearly stated her overarching wish for a new life in Lynn.

“The most important thing now is to settle down,” she said through translator James Modi.

Most Ukrainians who come to this country will undoubtedly want to return to their country and carry on the fight against Russian invaders and rebuild from war’s destruction. Some will accept the reality Mohamud embraced and understand returning is not possible. 

Lynn’s standing as a place where refugees make a new home stretches back more than a century. Irish, Italian, Greek, French, Polish and other immigrants crossed the Atlantic and made the city their home. 

The last 40 years saw Southeast Asian, Russian, Bosnian, Somali and Sudanese and Central American refugees leave war and persecution to come to Lynn. 

Jennifer Schamel with the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants told me in 2014 how a refugee’s journey to a new life and another country can span continents and take years to complete. Mohamud was among 500 refugees who came to Lynn that year. 

People fleeing persecution, starvation and other threats often end up in refugee camps. With help from refugee assistance organizations, they can file an application with the United Nations (UN) to determine if they qualify for refugee status. 

The process includes determining if the individual or family can return to their homeland or remain in the country where they initially sought refuge.

Once refugee status is granted, the UN helps find a country where the refugee can resettle. Refugees resettled in the United States initially receive assistance before being referred to self-sufficiency agencies like the New American Association.

The International Institute of New England handled most of those relocations, according to Ashley Wellbrock, an Institute refugee resettlement coordinator. Soolkin said many of these people ended up finding jobs locally. 

We have a slim chance of saving lives in Ukraine. But Lynn has a reputation for helping people forced to start a new life.

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