WINCHESTER — A global faith-based organization thinks Winchester is an ideal community for international refugees who have been driven from their own countries.
Susannah Lepley, Virginia’s director of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement for the nonprofit Church World Service (CWS), told the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee this week that her organization — formed in 1946 as a partnership between 17 religious denominations that wanted to feed, clothe and shelter the impoverished — hopes to open an office in Winchester that would serve people who have been forced from their homelands due to political, social or religious persecution.
“We feel that refugees would add to the Winchester community,” Lepley said. “There would be more people to work here, and Winchester would be great for the refugees themselves.”
Lepley said the refugee resettlement office’s goal for the first year would be to bring in 100 refugees, which equates to about two families per month. However, that number could increase in later years if President Joe Biden follows through on his pledge to raise the number of refugees allowed into the United States annually. Currently, only 15,000 refugees are allowed in per year — a number that Lepley said is “a historic low” — but Biden has said he wants to elevate that number to 125,000, possibly as soon as October. Prior to the tenure of President Donald Trump, she said, the yearly average number of refugees allowed into the U.S. was 96,000.
“What we’re doing is building the structure so that when the presidential determination is 125,000, we’ll have places to send people that are welcoming towns, welcoming cities,” Lepley said.
The Winchester CWS office, at least initially, would primarily serve people who have fled Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Before they arrive, we find an apartment for them, we set up the apartment, we furnish it with everything from dishes to lights to beds, sheets, towels, shampoo, everything,” Lepley said. “We help them within the first seven days to apply for government assistance to get them through the first several months, provide very intensive case management for the first 90 days, and then we provide employment assistance, help put their kids in school, things like that for the first five years they’re here.”
CWS also helps refugees learn English and obtain permanent residence in the United States.
Committee member Kim Herbstritt asked Lepley why the refugees would come to the U.S.
“They’re invited by the State Department,” Lepley said, explaining the refugees have already applied for, and been granted permission to, emigrate to the United States by the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
In order to qualify for refugee status, Lepley said, applicants must prove they have a credible fear of persecution, or have already been persecuted, because of their heritage, social status, religious beliefs and so on, “and their country is either unable or unwilling to protect them or give them justice.”
It takes about two years for an applicant to be deemed a refugee by the United Nations, during which time they are subjected to extensive background and health checks.
“They are by far the most vetted group [of people] in the United States who have entered from different countries,” Lepley said.
Herbstritt said it may be difficult for Lepley to find enough local homes for the refugees. The city’s housing supply is so low that on Tuesday, only 19 homes were available for purchase in Winchester, and half of those cost more than $300,000 each. She recommended Lepley also look at available housing in nearby Frederick and Clarke counties.
If city officials give their blessing to the refugee resettlement office, Lepley said it would most likely open in April 2021 somewhere within city limits.
“Winchester has always been an open community,” Mayor and committee member David Smith said before the panel voted unanimously to recommend City Council’s approval of a resolution supporting the refugee resettlement office. Council will open discussions on the proposal at its next meeting on May 11.
Attending Thursday’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting in Rouss City Hall were Chairman Richard Bell and members Kim Herbstritt and David Smith.