Seven to Watch: Helping refugees settle into new lives in Charlotte is her job

The most rewarding moments for Marsha Hirsch come months or years after refugees settle in to new homes in Charlotte: Getting a job, buying a car, passing their citizenship test and hitting other milestones on the way to becoming Americans.

Hirsch is executive director of Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency, one of the nonprofit groups contracted with the federal government to settle refugees in the U.S. On any given day, she and her colleagues might interact with people from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, El Salvador, Vietnam, Eritrea, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria or other countries.

Her agency arranges refugees’ first apartment and helps them find jobs, navigate the bureaucracy, enroll their kids in school and figure out all of the other innumerable tasks that make up day-to-day existence.

CRRA resettled 384 people in Charlotte the past year and anticipates resettling about 400 in the year to come. Like all refugees admitted to the U.S., they’ve fled their homes, moved to another country and been through a screening process that can take up to two years.

“Something extreme and dramatic happened that forced them to run,” said Hirsch in her nondescript office on Monroe Road. Donated bedding and house cleaning supplies are piled near the entrance, destined for families in need. “They didn’t choose to necessarily come here.”

But helping refugees isn’t simple these days. Now, in addition to the culture shock, struggles to learn English and painstaking efforts to build a new life in a strange place, there’s politics to think about. Refugees, especially from the five-year-long civil war in Syria, became a major political issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

At President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, one of his biggest applause lines was often his pledge to shut off the flow of refugees from Syria. Trump called them a “great Trojan horse” that would carry out future terrorist attacks. Gov. Pat McCrory joined a dozen other Republican governors who called for barring Syrian refugees from his state.

And the tide of refugees flowing out of Syria, Libya and other countries torn by decades of war from the Middle East into Europe inflamed tensions within the European Union, with nations throwing up border fences and finding themselves wondering what to do with the new populations. Countries such as Greece were inundated with refugees trying desperately to cross the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats, thousands of whom died in the process.

Heartbreaking photos – a tiny boy washed up dead on the shore in Turkey, dozens of African migrants climbing over the dead bodies of their fellow travelers in a small boat off the coast of Libya – highlighted the multiple crises.

But Hirsch said despite the political scrutiny, the increased attention had some positive effects this year. Whatever happens nationally, she said her organization will keep moving forward.

“We’ve received a lot of telephone calls for donations, volunteer support. I think people were actually quite ready to lend a helping hand,” she said. “From the standpoint of the operations of this office, we just keep moving. As it stands today, we have our pipeline of impending arrivals, and our office continues to work as it always has.”

A long, slow process

Hirsch didn’t start her career working with refugees and other displaced people. A Houston native, she lived abroad extensively after school, spending time in China, Japan and throughout Europe. She worked and taught English abroad, which she said gave her an affinity for cultures and people from other places. Teaching English at a community college in Nashville, she encountered refugees in the 1990s.

In 2012, after staying home to raise her children for years, Hirsch returned to the workforce. She got connected to CRRA through volunteering and teaching English, and started working for the organization. About a year ago, she was named executive director.

Refugees face a long and uncertain road before they come to Charlotte. After fleeing their home countries, they must register with the United Nations. Before they’re cleared to come to the U.S., they undergo a series of background and screening checks by an alphabet soup of federal agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security to the FBI to the National Counterterrorism Center, as well as medical screening.

“There’s a lot of complexity to the process,” she said. “There are multiple federal agencies involved.”

The State Department contracts with refugee resettlement agencies in the U.S., such as CRRA’s parent organization, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Those groups receive government grants to provide services for refugees. Once refugees arrive in Charlotte, CRRA or another similar group picks them up at the airport, arranges an apartment, helps them get paperwork and look for work.

The initial resettlement period with intense meetings lasts 90 days. After that, refugees are expected to become self-supporting. CRRA provides services such as job counseling and citizenship classes to help them settle in, but Hirsch said adjusting can be tough.

“There can come a point...that things can look a little gloomy or a little disappointing for a while,” she said. “It can feel quite difficult for people.”

But she keeps the goal in mind: A settled, stable family, no longer refugees but part of their adopted city and nation. Earlier this month, a man who came to the U.S. more than a decade ago as a refugee from Vietnam became a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer.

Hirsch said one of the best parts of her job is watching former clients take the oath of citizenship.

“Those oath ceremonies make me personally feel very proud,” said Hirsch. “People should be kind of thoughtful to what their own family’s history is, and what the foundation of the country is in terms of people coming in from all over the world.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

Age: 50

Time in Charlotte: Nine years

Family: Three children

Background: Hirsch lived abroad and taught English before moving to Charlotte. When she reentered the workforce after staying home to care for her children, she began working with Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency.

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