Refugee children in classroom
Russell WatkinsCC BY 2.0

The case worker McCormick encouraged Amin and Najma to take their time getting settled in. They should unpack, walk around the neighborhood. Get some rest. Amin shook his head. He was ready to work. When could he start?

McCormick had expected this. “Obviously not every refugee family is the same—their experiences vary, their cultures vary,” she tells me. “But what they share is this view of America as a place where no one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. They take that responsibility very seriously.”

-“Refuge: One Syrian family’s long odyssey to Georgia,” Atlanta Magazine, May 2016

Over the past year or so, Georgians have grown increasingly aware of the challenges faced by refugees resettling in the state. Families watching the nightly news see images of parents and children running from unspeakable terrors. Lawmakers fret about misplaced public fears of security risks and potential budgetary costs of resettlement. Communities ponder what effect a rising tide of residents from other lands might mean for their local economy, neighborhood fabric and quality of life. And refugees themselves, as well as the broader immigrant community, worry that public backlash could compromise their ability to care for their children and call Georgia home.

Cold hard facts often get lost in such passionate debates. But a new report released in June by a pair of nonpartisan national experts provides a wealth of information on how refugees in the U.S. fare over time and how they affect our local communities. The bottom line is refugees quickly establish themselves in America, get jobs and eventually start businesses, buy homes, learn English and become citizens. When welcomed to their new home and provided opportunities, refugees become highly productive citizens and help their host communities thrive.

About one in 12 immigrants, or 3.2 million people nationwide, initially arrived in the country as refugees. Georgia has accepted more than 33,000 refugees since 2001, including about 2,800 in 2015.The most recent newcomers to Georgia are families fleeing Syria, a country enduring one of the worst violent conflicts of our time. The federal government settled 235 Syrians in Georgia since the start of 2015, including a young family whose journey was movingly documented by Atlanta Magazine.

Refugees as a whole are a difficult group for researchers to study, because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t ask about refugee status when gathering national data. But the new report employs a unique method that looks at four distinct groups for whom refugee status can be inferred – Somali, Burmese, Hmong and Bosnian – and uses their experience to pull out some broad trends about the refugee community in general. Georgia is home to an estimated 13,400 members of those four communities, almost all living in metro Atlanta. Here are some of the ways those groups, and by extension refugees as a whole, contribute nationwide according to the study.

Once resettled in this country, refugees get to work. An estimated 84 percent of Somali men and 90 percent of Bosnian men in their prime working years participate in the labor force, compared to 81 percent of U.S.-born men. Refugee women start out with lower participation rates, but those in the country for more than 10 years often meet or exceed the employment of U.S.-born women.

Many start their own businesses. About 26 out of every 1,000 Burmese in the U.S. and 22 out of every 1,000 Hmong are business owners, compared to 31 out of every 1,000 U.S.-born people. Anyone who visits favored metro Atlanta resettlement enclaves such as Buford Highway or Clarkston knows firsthand how refugee entrepreneurs and customers can help revitalize local business districts.

Refugees climb the economic ladder. Workers see their wages rise as they gain economic footing and advance into higher-paying professions. Recently arrived Burmese men, for example, earn a typical wage of $23,000 a year, but that spikes to $54,000 for Burmese men who stay in the country at least 10 years. Once refugees are here for a while, that success often translates into homeownership. Seventy-two percent of Bosnians in the country more than a decade own their own homes, versus 68 percent of U.S.-born adults.

Most learn English and become citizens. The ability of refugees to integrate into U.S. communities is perhaps most clearly evidenced by how many learn English and become citizens. Generally, most refugees learn to speak English within their first decade in the country and become citizens within their second decade. While refugees are given legal resident status fairly quickly upon arrival, they cannot apply for full-fledged citizenship until after five years. More than three-quarters of refugees studied in the report became U.S. citizens within 20 years.

Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal presented an eloquent case for what kind of state Georgia can be at its best. In vetoing a bill that called for religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, he said “Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. Our cities and countryside are populated with people who worship God in a myriad of ways and in very diverse settings. Our people work side-by-side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion to which we adhere. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia.”

That’s the proper sentiment, not only concerning people of different colors or faiths but of different backgrounds as well. Refugees come to this country having endured hardships unimaginable to most Georgians – war, genocide, political persecution and religious violence. And yet they start contributing right away. They fill jobs, start businesses and generally set about making life better for their families and communities. Perhaps strangers at first, they become friends with time. Georgia is fortunate to have them.

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Wesley Tharpe
Wes is GBPI's Research Director, assessing potential ways policy proposals could affect Georgia families and businesses. A native of Fayetteville, Ga., he holds a master’s in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a bachelor’s in political science and international affairs from the University of Georgia.

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