Helping Refugees and Asylees

“Watching the news about the Syrian Refugees has made me feel helpless about the situation, but I find comfort knowing I can help families here in Virginia who have fled desperate situations as well. Thank you Just Neighbors for your work.”— a note from a donor to Just Neighbors

Just Neighbors does help refugees and asylees.  These are people who, by definition, have been uprooted and fled their homelands because of persecution.  They are in a strange land.

Click here to view a chart that shows countries of citizenship of refugees and asylees that Just Neighbors has helped since January 2014.

There is a time-lapse between a world crisis and clients from that country appearing as clients.  Staff were surprised that Afghanistan is not on the list because we had handled so many over the years, but our last refugee case from Afghanistan was closed in 2013.  Similarly, the table shows three Syrians who are asylees, but the wave of Syrian refugees has not yet reached our door.

The top number of asylees that come to Just Neighbors are the Uighurs from China, closely followed by the Coptic Christians from Egypt.  Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, China, that regards itself as Central Asian.  Over the past decade, the number of Han Chinese moving to the Xinjiang has increased, and they have received and sustained economic preference.  China has also placed restrictions on the practice of Islam.  The Coptic Christians are the largest religious minority in Egypt.  Religious intolerance and sectarian violence has flared in recent years, and the Egyptian government has not protected the Copts nor properly prosecuted the offenders.  It is fitting that the United States continues to embrace religious freedom through our humanitarian immigration policy of asylum.

What is the difference between an asylee and a refugee?  Someone seeking to be a refugee must register with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, which makes a preliminary determination of whether resettlement will be necessary.  If so, it will identify a suitable country.  The United States government accepts and funds the admission of 70,000 refugees each year.  Staff from refugee resettlement agencies meet the refugee (and family) at the airport and assist them with housing, school enrollment, English language skills, job search, and the like.

In contrast, people seeking asylum must somehow make it to the United States, on their own and at their own expense.  They generally had some economic means in their homeland in order to be in a position to finance getting to the United States.  Once in the United States, the prospective asylee must file an application for asylum within a year.  (There are some exceptions.)   Although the applicant for asylum may receive a work permit while awaiting a decision, the decision itself can take years.  In the meantime, the asylee can do nothing further to help his or her family.  You can imagine that this is a heart-wrenching period of waiting.

After living one year in the United States as an asylee or a refugee, the individual is eligible to apply for a green card.  Just Neighbors helps with those applications.  Nearly all of our clients are eligible for a waiver of the filing fee, saving them over a thousand dollars for each family member.  (This is extremely important, because problems we sort out years later are often caused because one or more of the family members never received a green card.)  The green card puts the individual on the path to the security of U.S. citizenship.  In the shorter term, a green card opens employment opportunities and serves as an identification card since many arrive without a passport.

Just Neighbors seems like a breath of fresh air to many of our refugee and asylee clients.  They have been uprooted and feel tossed to and fro by a faceless bureaucracy.  At Just Neighbors, they find welcoming people who listen to them.   They find experts who help them.  These are the clients most likely to come back to us and say, “I am a citizen now.  I did it on my own!”  Just Neighbors helped them when they needed a boost, but by the time they are eligible to become U.S. citizens 4 years later, they do the application and pass the civics and English tests without further assistance.

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The mission of Just Neighbors is to provide immigration legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees in Virginia, especially those who are most vulnerable. We also seek to foster enriching experiences that enhance awareness and mutual understanding among our clients, volunteers, staff and community.

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