A Freeland woman who describes herself as just a “regular” person is now on the front lines of the battle to assist refugees.
Spurred into action by news reports of the war in Syria, Nancy Roger launched a grassroots campaign late this summer to make a difference right here on South Whidbey. Last month she organized a community outreach and educational meeting, an event that amassed donations of essential home supplies for 21 new arriving families. She’s got another event planned for December, is working on an adopt-a-family-program for the holidays, and is hoping to eventually make it possible for local families to open their homes on a limited basis to arriving single mothers.
Roger said she didn’t have long-term plans when she began in July, but said the first event was so successful that she wants to keep it going. She’s officially named the effort the South Whidbey Refugee Project.
Also, Roger says she simply can’t continue to watch the crisis unfold from the comfort of her couch without doing anything.
“It makes me feel better to try and help,” Roger said.
Roger has partnered with Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a non-profit human services agency serving communities throughout Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The organization’s refugee resettlement and placement program has a cooperative agreement with the US government to provide refugee resettlement services, Program Director John Forseth said.
Refugees are people who are forced leave their country to escape war, persecution or a natural disaster. The process usually results in them losing everything they own and spending years in refugee camps.
“The average length of time in a camp is 17 years,” according to Forseth.
The process is faster for people migrating to the US, taking as little as two years if “fast tracked,” he said.
Once they arrive, the refugee resettlement and placement program provides case management for the first 90 days and makes sure refugees have the bare essentials to make a new life: on their first night they are provided with a culturally appropriate meal, necessary seasonal clothing and basic home supplies such as pots and pans, dishes, linen, bathroom stuff, cleaning supplies, etc.
That’s where people like Roger come in.
“We do all this through donations, either through ecumenical partnerships or private sponsorships,” Forseth said.
Roger’s October meeting and gathering effort resulted in 21 home “kits” — boxes with the basic supplies mentioned above. They was turned over to Forseth’s program and are now being distributed.
Efforts like Roger’s are vital to success, Forseth said.
“Without volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work, or least keep up with volume,” he said.
Last year, 519 refugees were resettled in Western Washington by five different agencies; 145 had fled from Syria.
Roger said helping hasn’t been easy and at one point she nearly gave up. Organizing the first event was challenging and time consuming, and she even had two people complain; they expressed concerns about the possibility of Syrian refugees ending up on South Whidbey.
But those were isolated incidents, she says, and that overall she has been inspired by South Whidbey’s generosity and continued interest.
“Every day I get more people requesting information,” she said.
Roger initially had hoped to open South Whidbey to refugee families, but that plan has largely been abandoned due to a lack of essential services. It might make “us” feel better but wouldn’t be the best thing for them, she said.
Forseth and Roger are considering limited housing options, however, such as finding families that are willing to house single mothers for their first 30 days while permanent homes are located elsewhere. Forseth is optimistic that South Whidbey is a suitable location for temporary housing.
“It’s just been such a welcoming community,” he said.
Roger’s next meeting is a panel discussion and presentation on the refugee crisis, which will detail how people here can help. It’s set for 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 at the Langley United Methodist Church.
Anyone who would like to donate or volunteer can contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.