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Refugees still settling in Quad-Cities

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

Nora Dvorak, director of the Refugee Resettlement Program in Davenport, looks over the arrival times for flights at the Quad City International Airport as she waits for refugees.

MOLINE -- Early immigrants to the Quad-Cities usually arrived with the shirts on their backs and the dreams in their hearts, pioneers looking to build better lives for their families.

Immigrants still come to the Quad-Cities, usually to join long-established family members.

However, another group of newcomers arrives knowing no one. They step off planes at the Quad City International Airport, sometimes not even knowing where the Quad-Cities is.

They are refugees, people who have been forced out of their native countries because of persecution in all its myriad forms -- persecution on the basis of religion, ethnicity, political opinion or nationality.

``Refugees have escaped with their lives, and very little else,'' Nora Dvorak, director of the Davenport-based Refugee Resettlement Program, said recently. ``They've usually left behind everything they own -- homes, cars, furniture, entire lives.''

A refugees' arrival in the Quad-Cities is at once an ending and a beginning.

``The refugees coming here are being permanently resettled, so it's an end to the uncertainty of a refugee camp or a temporary visa,'' Ms. Dvorak said. ``On the other hand, they face a whole host of new problems, like learning a new language, acclimating to a new culture and finding a new job, so it's also a beginning.''

Refugee resettlement in the Quad-Cities is not new. For decades, churches and humanitarian organizations on both sides of the river have resettled refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Cuba and Guatemala.

However, most resettlement has been done by the Davenport-based Refugee Resettlement Program that Ms. Dvorak now directs. Like most national and international refugee assistance programs, the Quad-Cities program began after World War II to help victims of Hitler's aggression begin new lives in a safe country.

At its beginning, the resettlement program was an informal one run by the Catholic Diocese of Davenport. It became more organized after the Vietnam War when it began resettling waves of Southeast Asian refugees. About 3,000 Southeast Asians, including Vietnamese and Amerasians, now live in the Quad-Cities.

``Though the area is becoming more diverse, I've been surprised by the number of people who've said `Oh, there are Vietnamese here?' when I talk about Vietnamese refugees,'' Ms. Dvorak said. ``To some people, they are still an invisible group.''

Changes came to the refugee program in 1997, first when Family Resources Inc. took over administration of the program from the Diocese in January. Then, in the summer, the office began resettlement of a new ethnic group of refugees, those from former Yugoslavia.

Since then, the office has resettled about 40 such refugees, most of them Bosnian Muslims or mixed marriages of, for example, Croats and Serbs. More are expected over the next few months.

``We will see more arrivals in February, because of people being required to leave Germany,'' Ms. Dvorak said, referring to Germany's policy of forcing Bosnian refugees out of the country.

Today, the office is staffed by Ms. Dvorak and four case-workers. They help refugees establish new lives, by finding an apartment for them, meeting them at the airport, helping them apply for Social Security cards and enrolling children in school.

While the staff's most obvious duties relate to resettlement, they have taken up a secondary, yet perhaps more impactive, role. They promote diversity wherever they can, trying to create a more receptive, welcoming community for those who have been violently forced out of their own.

``Our attempt is to make sure diversity is seen as a blessing, a value for all of us,'' Ms. Dvorak said. ``We have much to learn from one another. No one group has the answers for everything.''

-- By Sarah Larson (February 9, 1998)

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