Karibu.

That’s Swahili for “welcome,” and what Akron said Friday to a family of five refugees from Congo who arrived in North Hill to begin a new life.

Akron this spring lost its newest refugee resettlement office, World Relief, after the White House slashed the number of refugees the U.S. would let into the country this fiscal year to 30,000, less than one-third of what it was in the last year of the previous administration.

Yet the city’s stalwart International Institute of Akron — which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016 — continues its mission, not only helping new refugees settle in, but also providing employment, language, legal and other services for refugees and other immigrants.

The agency, now operating out of Summa Health System’s St. Thomas campus, is budgeted for 144 refugee arrivals this year.

But with Friday’s arrival of the Congolese family, along with a Karen refugee from South Asia the same day, the International Institute has already welcomed 161 refugees to Akron this year, said Madhu Sharma, executive director of the group.

“It’s difficult to predict what’s coming out of the White House for immigration policy,” Sharma said.

Historically, the U.S. led the world in formal refugee resettlement, accepting more refugees annually than any other country.

Under the Trump administration, however, the United States fell behind Canada in 2018, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

That year, the administration set a ceiling of 45,000 refugees coming in to the U.S., Sharma said. But fewer than half that — about 22,000 — made it in.

In 2019, that ceiling is 30,000, the lowest since the American refugee program started in 1980. “But the good news is the federal government is set to meet that number,” Sharma said.

Elected leaders in Akron and Summit County crave an ongoing influx of immigrants and refugees, both because the newcomers help stem ongoing population loss and because they bring new ideas, energy and economic power.

Between 2007 and 2013, Akron’s total population dropped by 1%. That loss would have have been twice as big without a nearly 31% increase in foreign-born residents, according to a 2017 joint report by the city of Akron and Summit County.

Nationally, about 12.9% of the population is foreign born. In Akron, it’s just under 5%.

“Immigrants and refugees are a vital part of our community,” the joint report said. “They bring fresh perspective and new ideas, start-up businesses, and they contribute to the vibrant diversity we all value.”

 

Who, where they are

Unlike most immigrants, refugees have fled their home countries and cannot return because they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Refugees are vetted, often for more than a year, before they are invited to come to the U.S. by the State Department. They arrive as legal residents and must wait one year to obtain a green card, and five years to gain citizenship.

Between 2002 and 2018, more than 944,685 refugees from 108 countries resettled in the U.S., according to data analysis by the Omaha World Herald.

Ohio has taken 33,612 of those refugees, with Columbus absorbing the most — 11,040, with more than half coming from Somalia, the data analysis said.

Cleveland ranked second in the state, with 3,363 refugees, most from Somalia and Congo.

And Akron ranked third, settling 2,173 refugees, more than Cincinnati, Toledo and Youngstown combined.

Data cited by the International Institute put the numbers of refugees much higher for Akron. It said it resettled more than 3,200 refugees here in less than a decade, often 500 refugees per year before the Trump administration lowered the numbers of refugees entering the country.

In recent years, most refugees bound for Akron came from Southeast Asia areas in and around Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Sharma said she expected a wave of Syrian refugees to follow because of the ongoing war there.

But few Syrian refugees have arrived.

In fiscal year 2016, under President Barack Obama,12,587 Syrian refugees came to the U.S. In fiscal 2018, under President Donald Trump, that number dropped to 62, The Washington Post reported.

Syria is among the Muslim-majority countries where refugee admissions to the U.S. fell by 90% between 2017 to 2018, the paper reported.

Meanwhile, about three years ago, Akron started seeing an increase of refugees from Congo, a nation where about 92% of the population is Christian.

Congo, the former state of Zaire, fell into turmoil in 1997 following a rebellion. Fighting continues in parts of Congo, where rape, torture, and genocide are not uncommon.

The Congolese refugees resettling in Akron are among 3 million forced to flee their homes, according to the International Institute.

In Akron, most Congolese speak Swahili.

If you run into one of Akron’s newest residents, you can greet them by saying “Habari,” the Swahili word for “hello.”

Smiling is welcomed, as is shaking hands. But eye contact — as in many foreign cultures — can be uncomfortable, so it’s probably best not to stare into someone’s eyes, Sharma said.

“Be willing to accept a hug! Invite them over for pizza or fried chicken, and don’t turn down an invitation,” Sharma said. “The effort you make to welcome someone will go very far.”

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettabj.