As you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast this year, consider that this celebration of the Pilgrims fleeing England in 1620 to seek religious freedom and the promise of prosperity in a new land is just the first step in America’s long history of taking in refugees. In 2016 alone, the U.S. accepted nearly 85,000 refugees, though out of the 20 million refugees in the world, less than 1 percent are considered for resettlement worldwide.
At Emma’s Torch, that foundational idea that America can be beacon of light to the tired, poor, and huddled masses is so central to our organization, it’s where we get our name. But before we can teach lessons like knife skills and dish plating techniques, it’s worth understanding our students’ journey to the United States and what it means to be a refugee.
Refugee status is determined by the United Nations, defined by those who are forced to leave their homes because of conflict or persecution. The U.S. resettlement program gives priority to refugees who have been targeted by violence, often women and children, though there is no evidence to suggest that refugees or children of refugees are more of a security risk than any other American.
Often, the process to enter the U.S. can take more than two years, as refugees undergo a series of interviews, background checks, and medical screeners to ensure they can safely and securely resettle in the U.S. The vetting process is already one of the most intensive of any group looking to enter the U.S., with security screenings led by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense. This includes biographic and biometric checks, in-person interviews, and forensic document testing.
Once cleared for resettlement, refugees work with resettlement agencies that provide immediate aid, such as housing, employment, food, medical care, and counseling. But these agencies only provide immediate assistance for the first 90 days, after which refugees are basically left to fend for themselves. On top of that, before leaving their home countries, they sign promissory notes agreeing to reimburse the U.S. government for travel costs to the States.
It is a severe understatement to say that the journey to the U.S. is not easy. At the end of a long and arduous process, many refugees must quickly find job opportunities that can begin to provide stability, empowerment, and meaning in their new lives as well as their new communities. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that refugees have a positive economic impact on their communities by finding jobs, spending money, and sending their children to school.
Our hope is that Emma’s Torch can help connect refugees to that sense of empowerment. As Thanksgiving illustrates, food can offer an uplifting path in difficult times. And America has always been stronger for the cornucopia of cultures it brings to its table. We believe that the experience of cooking and sharing meals, can not only help build bridges between cultures but remind us of the incredible value that refugees bring to their new communities.