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Sahleh Mohamed at a refugee learning center in Garden City. PHOTO: CORINNE BOYER / KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

Southwest Kansas is seeing fewer refugees, and a shift in the agencies supporting them

Saleh Mohammed fled his native Myanmar in 2015.

“Too much fighting over there,” he said.

As a member of the Rohingya ethnic minority, he was in particular peril. His life was in danger.

He settled in Garden City. Now 24, he may gain citizenship in a year. That, in turn, will put him in a position to bring over his family and free those loved ones from a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

To navigate life in western Kansas — he’s a meat carver in a Tyson packing plant — he’s relied on aid groups in the region. Those organizations have put him on a path to citizenship and to bringing over his relatives.

But that safety net for refugees is experiencing its own transition. The International Rescue Committee had been the lead agency helping refugees in southwest Kansas until the flood of refugees became a trickle.

The IRC closed its Garden City office last year and consolidated operations in Wichita. Now Catholic Charities helps Mohamed and the dwindling number of refugees in the area like him.

The decline in refugees has put a huge dent in the budget of aid agencies. Some observers called refugees a “money maker” for these organizations some of which received over 95 percent of their funding from the federal government. Instead of a ‘non-profit’ effort ran by the church, these agencies in effect became arms of the government, dependent on tax dollars to operate.

The problem was often that the organizations made a little “profit” off each refugee. They kept the funds beyond which it took to resettle the refugee and used those funds for other programs.

On average, the IRC agency resettled 50 to 100 refugees a year in Garden City and other U.S. cities.

“In 2016 and 2017, we were very busy out there,” said IRC Kansas Executive Director Michele Green said. “There (were) still hundreds of refugees moving to the area.”

But in late July 2018, IRC closed its office in southwest Kansas. That came after the U.S. State Department announced the year before that it would no longer support offices servicing fewer than 100 people per year.

Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas had been taking on part of the IRC caseload. Now Catholic Charities is the only agency that resettles refugees in Southwest Kansas. It works with Live Well Finney County to help new immigrants, using a small apartment that serves as both a community center and a classroom.

Debbie Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, said as soon as the nonprofit receives a new refugee case, it starts working with people with ties to the newcomer — a brother, aunt, cousin.

“Most cases we have are family reunification,” she said. “So it’s a family member that they are coming to be with that is sponsoring them.”

Before a new refugee arrives in Kansas, the agency works with the refugee’s U.S. tie to find housing. Within the first 90 days, Catholic Charities assists with paperwork, health exams and job placement.

At the end of that time, “they are secure in their house, job and have all the documents they need so they can work more towards being independent,” Snapp said.

Kansas resettlements declined before the State Department began letting fewer refugees into the country. In 2016, then-Gov. Sam Brownback removed the state from the U.S. refugee program.

Snapp said that decision “changed how the state provided services to refugees.” There was no longer a state office that dealt with, for instance, cash assistance and medical assistance.

Since taking on resettlement work, Catholic Charities has worked with between 35 to 40 immigrants.

After the Brownback decision, the Trump administration issued policies shutting out more refugees. Last year, the U.S. Department of State issued a new refugee resettlement number — capping the total at 30,000 for the year, down from 45,000 in 2017.

Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp, said in an email that unlike many rural communities, the county is growing.

“Refugees and immigrants have been a tremendous asset as our economy has grown,” DuVall said.

Despite the decrease of refugees, Snapp says Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas plans to continue its resettlement work.