Jacksonville nonprofits joining forces to fight back against potential refugee program shutdown

Helping local refugees

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The last two refugee resettlement agencies left standing in Jacksonville are coming together to combat misinformation.

It comes after a report from Politico that the Trump administration is considering a near shutdown of refugee admissions next year.

Milete Gebretekle is an American citizen now, with an information technologies degree and a steady job at Lutheran Social Services Northeast Florida.

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"It makes me happy, and you can't see that back home and there's no freedom," Gebretekle said.

It's a far cry from her life just a few years ago in Ethiopia where at 16 years old she was left orphaned.

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"In one year, my father and my mother, they passed away the same year," Gebretekle said.

Gebretekle and her siblings fled war-torn Ethiopia and they were resettled in Jacksonville by World Relief, an organization that had to shutter its local office after refugee intakes slowed down to a trickle.

Now, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities are left standing, but they, too, have concerns.

"We used to resettle 3-400 people a year and now we're down to under 90 people," said Mary Strickland, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services.

"They're coming to the United States looking for a safe place to raise their families and we're basically... shutting the door on them," said Lauren Hopkins of Catholic Charities.

A shutdown of the program would also impact those who qualify for "special immigrant visas". This type of visa is granted to people who help the U.S. Armed Forces, with services such as interpreting, and in return are promised safety in the United States.
    
The services they offer are crucial for refugees as they adjust to life in the U.S. The nonprofits teach them everything from getting a library card to speaking English.

"They're not running across the border. They're invited by the government they're vetted, and they have to pay all the costs back," Strickland said.

On Saturday, the agencies will band together for an online event called "Rise for Refuge".

"The only way that we are going to make a difference is when people learn and understand," Hopkins said.

Hopkins added that they're going to fight misinformation about the refugees they help and urge people to call their lawmakers to help save the resettlement program from collapsing.

Catholic Charities said it hasn't had to lay off anyone, but it's had to reassign their refugee staff to other departments. Lutheran Social Services said it went from 22 staff members in its refugee department to just seven now.

Milete has now called Jacksonville home for eight years; this fall, she will welcome her first baby.

Action News Jax asked her what she's most looking forward to teaching her child.

"I will teach my child to be, humanity," she said.

To participate in Rise For Refuge event, visit the Facebook page.

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