Jan Reeves is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
Although I’ve been involved in refugee resettlement in Idaho for more than 28 years, I was already into middle age before I discovered this transforming work. Many of life’s great opportunities appear serendipitously and the key to unlocking doors, invariably, is to recognize them, understand their nature and act on them with gusto. If you’re lucky, an opportunity will arise that captures your heart and invades your bloodstream. This is what happened to me in April 1985, when I responded to a refugee related job posting in Boise.
Refugees coming to the United States have faced the most severe forms of persecution, dehumanizing violence and degradation, and they bring with them little more than memories and hope. I’ve found nothing more rewarding than seeing people who have faced unknowable adversity rise out of their shattered pasts to find a place of safety and to succeed in remaking their lives. And to have a role in fostering this transformation and to be able to witness such valiant human resilience is a gift, indeed.
Although there are many commonalties between refugees and immigrants coming by other means to the U.S., one difference stands out. There is a unique and ongoing tension between the recognized need for the United States to provide global leadership in the protection of refugees world wide—which includes resettlement as an option—and the perceived capacity of local communities to successfully resettle them. “Successful” resettlement means to assure that the opportunities and motivations are in place for refugees to fully integrate into the fabric of American life—not to give up their heritage and identity, but to bring them to the table.
From the beginning, I was fortunate to associate with many colleagues who understood that unless refugees—and, by extension, other immigrant groups—had unrestricted opportunities to fully realize their human potential, the work would be incomplete. I took from this association a passion for working toward the full integration of refugees into our communities, where they would feel a genuine sense of belonging and where they would know that their talents and abilities would be appreciated and put to good use.
In early 2009, another meaningful opportunity came my way. The Mayor of Boise, Dave Bieter, wanted to better understand how the financial crisis and resulting economic upheaval was affecting the rapidly growing refugee population in the area. He was hearing concerns voiced by constituents and community leaders and wanted to be sure the City was doing all it could to weather the storm. The resulting collaboration between the Mayor’s Office and the Idaho Office for Refugees engaged dozens of key stakeholders, interested community members and other partners to produce the City’s first Refugee Community Plan. In the summer of 2010, the plan was completed and we are now into three years of implementation. The Plan aims to strengthen supports for refugee resettlement in the greater Boise area by mapping resources, assessing service needs, and identifying areas where resources for the effective resettlement of refugees can be better utilized, coordinated or expanded. The central message that emerged from this process was that limiting the number of refugees coming into our community is not the answer; being more strategic to ensure that our capacity continues to grow is.
Being a welcoming community goes well beyond smiles and encouraging words, although these acts of kindness are essential. A true welcome is revealed by the meaningful and myriad opportunities that newcomers find to embrace community, share talents and contribute to the welfare of all.
Jan Reeves serves as Director of the Idaho Office for Refugees (IOR) based in Boise.