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Refugees Resettled In Jacksonville Sharply Declines; Local Agencies Feel Financial Pinch

Abukar Adan
Wednesday's Jacksonville Area Refugee Task Force meeting.

The number of refugees who have resettled in Duval County has declined by more than 75% since the Trump Administration’s changes to the refugee resettlement policy. 

New refugee arrivals to Jacksonville dropped from 1,457 in 2016 to 294 last year, according to theFlorida Department of Children and Families. The local agencies that help resettle refugees are feeling a financial pinch.

Mary Strickland is the CEO and President of Lutheran Services of Northeast Florida, one of three agencies helping refugees transition to life in Jacksonville. The other two are Catholic Charities and World Relief. Strickland said she’s had to reduce her staff by more than two-thirds. 

“Because of the ban that was put in place in 2017, and the changes to the United States Refugee Assistance Program, far fewer people are coming into the United States, not just in Jacksonville,” she said. 

Related: ‘Refugees Are Welcome Here’: Jacksonville Protesters Speak Against Trump Order

Strickland said her agency can no longer take refugees from some Muslim-majority countries like Syria. The Trump Administration has also increased the amount of vetting, making the process much longer, and put in placea 30,000 cap for the number of refugees allowed into the country for fiscal year 2019. That’s a sharp drop from the limit of 85,000 the Obama Administration set for 2016. 

“Since those numbers have dropped then of course it drops throughout all of the states as well as Florida,” said LeAndra Stafford, a Regional Community Liaison for Refugee Services in Northeast Florida. 

Statewide, the number of refugees has fallen from just shy of 65,000 in 2016 to about 8,000. 

Refugee data chart credit: Florida Department of Children and Families

For Lutheran Services of Northeast Florida, that’s meant cutting the number of people working with refugees from 22 to seven, over the past two years. Catholic Charities Jacksonville has had to close down one of its locations for English Language Language (ESL) and citizenship test classes because of low enrollment. 

As the services available to refugees has shrunk, so too has the number of refugees who stay after being resettled in Jacksonville.    

“For Catholic Charities’ Match Grant Program, they have had 14 [refugees] leave right away in less than a month,” said a spokeswoman for the nonprofit at a Jacksonville Area Refugee Task Force Meeting Wednesday. “Three people went to Idaho, five went to Virginia, and six others might be leaving soon to Iowa.” 

For those who are still resettling in Jacksonville, the nonprofits help set up their apartments, get their children into school, and go to doctors’ appointments. But, said Stickland, the refugees are expected to pay back all the costs. 

“So these people don’t come over here on a free ride, they actually get a bill from the United States Government after their 90 days is up,” she said.

At Wednesday's meeting, the three settlement agencies, along with several other partner organizations, discussed how to streamline services while still supporting refugees.

Christine Rothberg heads one of the partner organizations. She is the founder of the Jacksonville nonprofit Project for Healing, the only state-funded mental health and wellness service for refugees. She said people often think newcomers won’t benefit the community.

“But really the more diverse our community is, the more enticing we are for big corporations. And it’s really been shown statistically that immigrants and refugees are going to start up small businesses,” she said. 

Project for Healing has offered pro bono counseling to refugees, asylees and victims of trafficking since 2011. Most of the refugees come directly from refugee camps, but, Rotherberg said, they don’t use the word mental health because of the stigma associated with the word.     

“A lot of our clients have encountered an enormous amount of complex traumatic situations, and we help them move past that so they can live happy healthy lives here in Jacksonville,” she said.  

Other partner organizations include the First Coast YMCA, Agape Clinic, and Early Learning Coalition for Childcare. 

Strickland said she expects the number of refugees resettled in Jacksonville this year to be no more than 125.

Abukar Adan is a former WJCT reporter who left the station for other pursuits in August 2019.