One of two refugee resettlement agencies in Akron is closing, after helping more than 400 immigrants start a new life in the area.

The 4-year-old Akron office of World Relief will shut down April 30 — a result of the White House capping at 30,000 the number of refugees who can be resettled in the United States this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30.

That's the lowest ceiling since the refugee program was created in 1980.

Kara Ulmer, director of the Akron World Relief office, said the agency was slated to resettle only 46 refugees this fiscal year. Staff already had been cut back, and World Relief's national administrators determined they cannot afford to keep an office open that handles such a relatively small number of refugee arrivals.

"We have been working so hard to build a private, local funding base," Ulmer said, but there was not enough time to generate the necessary funds.

World Relief, based in Baltimore, is one of the primary agencies in the United States that resettle those who have fled persecution in their homelands.

It receives grant money from the U.S. State Department per refugee and raises money from church congregations. Evangelicals began the organization in the 1940s, sending clothing and food to victims of World War II.

The Akron office has resettled 415 refugees from places such as Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ulmer said. "I think of the impact those refugees have made."

Now, with the number of future refugees being cut back, Ulmer said, "this means less houses occupied. Less students for our shrinking schools. Less taxes paid. Less new businesses. Less consumer spending. Less innovation."

Ulmer said the closing of the agency is a blow to the network of area churches and individual volunteers who have worked with World Relief to help settle refugees. 

"It's a significant loss for a community," Ulmer said, one of three still employed in the Akron office. "We've worked with 50 churches as partners. We have more than 500 volunteers work with us and the refugees in a highly relational way," helping them learn English, find work, set up doctors' appointments, celebrate birthdays and holidays and more.

She said she plans to work with volunteers to "ensure they continue engaging the refugee community in Akron."

Eka Anthony, 24, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is among the refugees who were resettled by the Akron World Relief office. He is now a case manager at Akron's other refugee resettlement agency, the International Institute of Akron. He is working on a political science degree at Kent State University and plans to go to law school.

"World Relief welcomed me and picked me up from the airport, took me to a house," he said. "They gave us [he and other refugees] clothing, furniture, kitchen supplies. ... I had people [volunteers] show me around, how to navigate the community. We became like family.

"Ninety percent of my friends are volunteers [for the agency]," he said, "and people I connected with through volunteers."

The Akron office, inside the Well Akron building in a former church on East Market Street, already had been squeezed by President Donald Trump's scaling back of the refugee program.

For fiscal 2018, the White House capped refugee admissions at 45,000, which at that point was a historically low limit. Churches, employers, community leaders and others criticized the action. Trump said in a speech to the United Nations in 2017, "For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region."

In actuality, in fiscal 2018,  U.S. resettlement agencies ended up resettling fewer than 23,000 people. World Relief closed five of its offices in 2017, including one in Columbus, after the White House temporarily halted refugee arrivals.

The Akron World Relief office survived that cut. In fiscal 2018, ended last Sept. 30, it initially expected to resettle 200 refugees. It ended up resettling 106. As a result, its grant from the state department was essentially cut in half.

Akron's other resettlement agency, the International Institute, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. It also has been squeezed by cutbacks in refugee admissions.

Like World Relief, much of its funding comes from per-refugee grants from the state department.

"We've had two rounds of layoffs," said Madhu Sharma, executive director of the International Institute, located at the Summa St. Thomas Campus in Akron's North Hill neighborhood. "The first was in 2017 and the second was in 2018 — obviously both in response to the reduction in refugee arrivals."

Sharma said the 21-employee agency is projected to resettle 260 refugees this fiscal year. However, she said, the agency  is being fiscally conservative, budgeting for only 144 arrivals. She said it's too early to say whether any of the 46 arrivals allocated to World Relief's Akron office will be transferred to the International Institute.

"We're budgeting for less to account for the possibility that things could go the way that they went last year and the federal government does not meet its cap" of 30,000 refugees.

The International Institute, she said, "is still here for refugees that come to Akron. We are being strategic in how we can sustain our services."

Katie Byard at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com.