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Office of Refugee Resettlement National Consultation

August 2nd, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks are prepared for delivery

Thank you, George, for that introduction and for your terrific leadership at the Administration on Children and Families. I also want to acknowledge the Director of our Office of Refugee Resettlement, Eskinder Negash. As many of you know, Eskinder came to America as a refugee himself, so he brings to his job a firsthand understanding of both the challenges refugees face and the incredible contributions they can make if they get the support they need to overcome those challenges.

I especially want to thank all the state, local, and non-profit partners who are here today from across the country. You not only provide the services and resources that refugees need to begin building their lives in America. You are also examples for them of America’s finest values: generosity, openness, and the belief that we are a stronger country when each of us has the chance pursue our dreams. You are the ones who make these programs work, and I hope you are leaving this consultation with new ideas and new energy.

Finally, I want to welcome all the refugees here today. Many of you have overcome incredible obstacles to be here today. We are inspired by your courage. And we are committed to working with you to make America not just a safe haven for refugees, but a new home, where you can raise your families, build careers, and become part of a larger community.

This commitment is deeply rooted in our nation’s history. America is a country of refugees, from the Pilgrims who fled religious persecution in England to my great-grandparents who came from Ireland to escape a potato famine. Part of the reason we welcome more refugees than every other country in the world combined – nearly three million since 1980 – is because we know that many of us would not be here ourselves if previous generations of Americans had not welcomed our own ancestors.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, helping refugees is a natural extension of the mission that guides our work. Our department is charged with providing care and services for the most vulnerable Americans – the old, the sick, the frail, and the disabled – as well as creating a pathway to opportunity for children and families. The work we do to support refugees fulfils both parts of that mission.

Some who come here have been wrenched from their homes by sudden violence. Others have spent years in the limbo of refugee camps where home is just a distant dream.

Last month, I visited a refugee transit center in Langata, Kenya where families were spending their last few days before boarding a plane for the United States. I spoke to one 28-year-old man who told me he had lived in a refugee camp since he was two. He had grown up, made friends, found interests, fallen in love, and gotten married – all without ever having a place he could point to on a map and say, “this is my home.” Now, he is on his way to Texas, where he will get, not a second chance, but what is really a first chance to live a life with the basic opportunities most of us take for granted.

That is not to say it will be easy. When refugees come to America, they are often moving from one chaotic world to another that can be equally jarring – with a new language, new food, new culture, and new customs. It can feel lonely and isolating, especially if they have no family or friends nearby.

That’s why your work is so important. Whether you are helping people find housing, get medical care, learn English, or locate a job, you are the ones who make that overwhelming transition manageable. You provide the solid foundation on which people can begin to build new lives.

I know that work has been especially difficult recently, with challenging job markets and tight budgets. That’s why over the last two years, our department has embarked on an ambitious effort to ensure that we are making the most of the resources we are devoting to this important work.

We’re working with our partners at the State Department to find new ways to help make sure refugees have a seamless transition from their old countries to new communities in which they have the support they need to succeed.

We’re reaching out to new partners from the Labor Department to the Education Department to the Agriculture Department to ask how we can do a better job connecting refugees with their programs.

We’re looking within our own department and asking: “how can we take programs that already exist and make them better serve the needs of refugees?” For example, we recently set aside some funds from our child care programs to help refugees get trained as child care workers – good jobs that can also fill needs in their community.

And we continue to implement the health care law signed last year by President Obama. Beginning in 2014, the law will put affordable health insurance within the reach of every American, including refugees, by expanding Medicaid and creating a new marketplace with better insurance options for those who purchase coverage on their own. And the law will also end discrimination against those with preexisting conditions, ensuring that refugees, who often come to the United States with serious health conditions that have often gone untreated for years, are not shut out of the health insurance market.

These are all steps in the right direction. But the federal government cannot do this alone. That’s why we’re working to build stronger relationships not just between our department and those of you here today, but between government and community organizations at every level. The more closely we work together, the more effective we will be, and I look forward to hearing your ideas about what we can do better.

Ultimately, this is not just about what America can do for refugees. It is also about what refugees do for America. As you’ve heard over the last two days, refugees are providing a lift to local economies cross the country, helping create growth that benefits all Americans.

And the measure of refugees’ contributions goes far beyond economic output. Over the course of American history, refugees have risen to the highest levels of government, business, the military, and the arts. Having adopted a new culture and a new country, they have dedicated themselves to enriching that culture and strengthening that country.

We have with us today several extraordinary refugees who have become leaders in their communities. One of them is Claude Mabudu (Klad Ma-boo-doo). Claude left Togo with his wife, Kayissan (Ka-yee-son), and five children in 2008. They arrived 7,500 miles later in Anchorage, Alaska with a single bag of belongings. Given what Claude and his family had been through, I think any of us would have understood if they had taken a few years to adjust to their new surroundings, if they had said, “we’re just going to take it easy for a while.”

But that’s not what Claude and his family have done. Instead, he and Kayissan got jobs immediately and have kept working since then. Working with volunteers from Habitat for Humanity, they built a new house that they live in today. Today, the whole family is fluent in English and Claude and Kayissan have both enrolled in college so they can build an even better life for their children. And Claude has also become a prominent member of his community, speaking frequently at local events and club meetings.

When we help refugees build a new life in America, we are not only standing up for a fundamental American belief – that each of us is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – we are also adding new chapters to the story of the American dream. This is work that the Obama Administration believes deeply in, that our department believes deeply in, and that I believe deeply in. And I look forward to working with all of you to continue that work in the months and years to come.

Thank you.