Office of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Provider Host "World Refugee Roundtable"

Kate Tocci, for GPA -- On June 13, Mayor Nutter announced that Philadelphia would, for the first time, participate in World Refugee Day, celebrated worldwide every year on June 20. His announcement came at a press conference which opened the “World Refugee Day Roundtable Panel and Discussion,” hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (MOIMA) along with the Philadelphia Refugee Resettlement Provider Collaborative (PRRPC).

During the conference, the mayor noted that the city would hold a celebration at Northeast High School in honor of the day on June 21, taking part in the festivities and continuing in Philadelphia’s recognition of June as Immigrant Heritage Month.

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations in 2001, marking the 50th anniversary of the UN Convention of 1951. That year’s convention defined which individuals would qualify as refugees and what rights these individuals would receive when granted asylum in a welcoming country. World Refugee Day is designed to recognize those who are displaced and the obstacles they face while remembering and advocating for those who were left behind.

“Philadelphia is a very welcoming city,” said Juliane Ramic, Director of Social Services for the Nationalities Service Center in an interview before the event. “It’s so welcoming that there are actually three agencies that are able to resettle refugees: Nationalities Service Center, Lutheran Children and Family Services (LCFS) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania (HIAS-PA).”

These three agencies make up the PRRPC and were represented in the Mayor’s Reception Room by Ramic, Janet Panning of the LCFS and Sarah Amazer of the HIAS-PA.

According to Ramic, about 40 million people are displaced annually and of those, around 70 thousand come to the United States. Philadelphia receives six to eight hundred of these displaced people, who are helped to resettle by the agencies that make up the PRRPC.

“Through the PRRPC, we provide refugees with housing, rental assistance, help them access healthcare and benefits and get their children into schools,” said Ramic. “Our goal is for about 80 percent of that number to then be able to work within four to six months after arrival and with plans for the others to quickly follow suit. It doesn’t take much to be a refugee. Your race, your religion, your membership in a particular social group, your political beliefs or ethnicity can be enough.”

Ramic also spoke about the importance of employment to the lives of refugees. “They’ve been denied opportunities for work, they’ve been living in refugee camps where there [wasn’t] access to livelihood opportunities, they couldn’t generate revenue or income for themselves. To be able to go to work here in the city is an activity that restores dignity and helps to bring them back in line with so much.”

While humanitarian duty drives many to the aid of refugees, Ramic reported that that are also economic benefits to including these individuals in our communities, noting that while “many of them have no formal work experience, so many of them are recognized as being some of Philadelphia’s hardest workers” because they relish the opportunity to go to work and make an independent lives for themselves.

The interview with Ramic concluded with Mayor Nutter’s announcement, which touched on Philadelphia’s history of welcoming immigrants.

“Immigrants are in fact an integral part of the multicultural fabric of Philadelphia and contribute to the economic development of our great city,” the mayor stated, describing Philadelphia as “the quintessential city of diverse neighborhoods.”

Philadelphia is the “birthplace of freedom and democracy,” he continued, and the city “must create opportunities for newcomers, not only because it is the humanitarian thing to do, but because of the positive impact they have on our economy.” He expressed Philadelphia’s support for the organization Welcome.US in its efforts to establish June as Immigrant Heritage Month and pointed out that there are many ways to make a positive impact for refugees in the city, including offering job opportunities and contributing to resettlement organizations.

The mayor then welcomed Jennifer Rodriguez, the Executive Director of MOIMA, to the podium to discuss her role in the organization and its close relationship with the PRRPC.

“Every four seconds somebody is forced to leave everything behind to escape war, persecution, or terror,” said Rodriguez. She asked the audience to open their minds to consider what it would be like to be oppressed or to be displaced. “Nobody chooses to be a refugee. We at MOIMA are committed to identifying the resources, developing the support networks and building the capacity of refugee communities so that they can be fully integrated into the city’s social, civic and economic life.”

Words from Ramic followed Rodriguez’s statement. Ramic praised MOIMA and Mayor Nutter’s efforts in supporting refugees, immigrants and resettlement agencies in Philadelphia and she urged the city to continue to increase efforts in this area. According to Ramic, this year’s theme for World Refugee Day would be “Share a Story,” dedicated to listening to and understanding all of those who have had to leave their homelands behind.

Following the press conference, a panel was assembled of Ramic, Rodriguez, Hani White of the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center and an honorary guest, a refugee who owns Namaste Grocery on S. 7th St. in Philadelphia. Facilitating the discussion was Amazer of HIAS-PA. Ramic, Rodriguez and White all discussed their work, highlighting their successes in resettling refugees while also examining the areas that need improvement. The owner of Namaste Grocery then shared his story, one that praised the United States’, and particularly Philadelphia’s, welcoming atmosphere. He joked that U.S.A. did not stand for the United States of America, but rather “yoU Start Again,” a feat which he accomplished here in Philadelphia with the opening of his own business.