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Southwest Kansas Is Seeing Fewer Refugees, And A Shift In The Agencies Supporting Them

Saleh Mohammed fled his native Myanmar in 2015.

“Too much fighting over there,” he said.

As a member of the Rohingya ethnic minority, he was in particular peril. His life was in danger.

He settled in Garden City. Now 24, he may gain citizenship in a year. That, in turn, will put him in a position to bring over his family and free those loved ones from a refugee camp in Bangladesh.

To navigate life in western Kansas — he’s a meat carver in a Tyson packing plant — he’s relied on aid groups in the region. Those organizations have put him on a path to citizenship and to bringing over his relatives.

But that safety net for refugees is experiencing its own transition. The International Rescue Committee had been the lead agency helping refugees in southwest Kansas until the flood of refugees became a trickle.

The IRC closed its Garden City office last year and consolidated operations in Wichita. Now Catholic Charities helps Mohamed and the dwindling number of refugees in the area like him.

On average, the IRC agency resettled 50 to 100 refugees a year in Garden City and other U.S. cities.

“In 2016 and 2017, we were very busy out there,” said IRC Kansas Executive Director Michele Green said. “There (were) still hundreds of refugees moving to the area.”

But in late July 2018, IRC closed its office in southwest Kansas. That came after the U.S. State Department announced the year before that it would no longer support offices servicing fewer than 100 people per year.

Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas had been taking on part of the IRC caseload. Now Catholic Charities is the only agency that resettles refugees in Southwest Kansas. It works with Live Well Finney County to help new immigrants, using a small apartment that serves as both a community center and a classroom. 

Debbie Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, said as soon as the nonprofit receives a new refugee case, it starts working with people with ties to the newcomer — a brother, aunt, cousin.

“Most cases we have are family reunification,” she said. “So it’s a family member that they are coming to be with that is sponsoring them.”

Before a new refugee arrives in Kansas, the agency works with the refugee’s U.S. tie to find housing. Within the first 90 days, Catholic Charities assists with paperwork, health exams and job placement.

At the end of that time, “they are secure in their house, job and have all the documents they need so they can work more towards being independent,” Snapp said.

Kansas resettlements declined before the State Department began letting fewer refugees into the country. In 2016, then-Gov. Sam Brownback removed the state from the U.S. refugee program.

Snapp said that decision “changed how the state provided services to refugees.” There was no longer a state office that dealt with, for instance, cash assistance and medical assistance.

Since taking on resettlement work, Catholic Charities has worked with between 35 to 40 immigrants.

After the Brownback decision, the Trump administration issued policies shutting out more refugees. Last year, the U.S. Department of State issued a new refugee resettlement number — capping the total at 30,000 for the year, down from 45,000 in 2017.

Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp, said in an email that unlike many rural communities, the county is growing.

“Refugees and immigrants have been a tremendous asset as our economy has grown,” DuVall said.

Despite the decrease of refugees, Snapp says Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas plans to continue its resettlement work. 

Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her @Corinne_Boyer.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to

Copyright 2020 High Plains Public Radio. To see more, visit .

Corinne Boyer is a reporter for the at High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas. Following graduation, Corinne moved to New York City where she interned for a few record labels, worked as a restaurant hostess and for a magazine publisher. She then moved to Yongin, South Korea where she taught English and traveled to Taiwan, Thailand, Belgium and South Africa. Corinne loved meeting new people and hearing their stories. Her travels and experiences inspired her to attend graduate school. In 2015, she graduated with a Master of Science in journalism degree from the University of Oregon. She gained her first newsroom experience at KLCC—Eugene’s NPR affiliate. In 2017, she earned the Tom Parker Award for Media Excellence for a feature story she wrote about the opioid epidemic in Oregon. That year, she was also named an Emerging Journalist Fellow by the Journalism and Women Symposium.
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