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One of 350 affiliates around the country — and the only such organization in Kansas City, Missouri — JVS works with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees. Last year, the federal government gave JVS nearly $1.3 million to support 492 refugees.
It isn't enough.
At JVS' Center for New Americans, wooden boards painted with peace signs face out where windows should be. A vandal broke out several panes at this JVS office months ago, but the glass hasn't been replaced. Billowing above, a sheet of graying plastic covers the upper half of the blocklike building.
In the lobby, a teenage boy sits. He wears an awkward, nervous grin. His right leg is 12 inches shorter than his left, with a foot barely bigger than an infant's. Beside him, an elderly woman with a weathered face and a skeletal frame cups her chin in her hands and stares ahead vacantly.
The elderly Somali mother and her disabled son are among the 75,000 refugees who were accepted into the United States in 2009 — a tiny sliver of the millions of men and women displaced from their home countries because of war or persecution. Regina Wills, a spokeswoman for the State Department, says only the most vulnerable 1 percent are referred by the United Nations for resettlement. "The U.S. takes more than all other countries combined — more than 50 percent of refugees resettled worldwide," Wills says.
The process isn't as simple as hopping a flight to freedom. First, refugees who have passed a background check and medical screening are placed on a long State Department list. Every Wednesday morning, in Washington, D.C., representatives from 10 nonprofits go over that list; they then send refugees to 350 smaller agencies in cities across the nation. Kansas City's link to that Wednesday meeting is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a Virginia-based group that has been involved in the complex system for nearly 100 years and has overseen local resettlement.
"They're sitting around the table, and they have these lists of who's ready to travel, and someone will say, Here's a mother from Somalia with seven kids who all need medical services," Wills explains. "And somebody will say, We've got all the necessary services available at our affiliate in Boise, Idaho. Or our affiliate in Missouri."
For the better part of three decades, refugees in Kansas City were resettled by the Don Bosco Center. But in late 2003, about the time Nicholas Scielzo took over as president, the nonprofit opted out. "The board identified that if we could find a partner, a nonprofit, who would continue the refugee resettlement program, that Don Bosco would be better off focusing on other areas," Scielzo says.
Scielzo contacted JVS, a local organization founded in 1949 to resettle Holocaust survivors; in recent years, it has branched into other services for refugees, including immigration counseling and interpretation. Joy Foster, JVS' executive director, didn't want to see resettlement slip away in Kansas City. "Joy had an interest in assuming other responsibilities," Scielzo says. JVS took Don Bosco's place at the end of 2003.
With a wry smile, Foster says JVS expected to resettle no more than 120 refugees the first year. But in 2004, the United States agreed to take in 12,000 ethnic Bantu refugees from Somalia. With that national spike, JVS took in 326 refugees (some of whom were Somali Bantus).
"The first 30 days, it's heavy-duty," Foster says. "We have contact with the families all the time, getting through the core services in those first 90 days. We're following up, doing home visits, making sure everything is OK."