Refugee finds stability in Columbia

Story written by Aaron Carter.


COLUMBIA — One of the priorities in resettlement of refugees and immigrants is fostering self-reliance as quickly as possible.

“When you’re helpless you can’t do anything, except to not give up,” said Osmon Osmon, 46, a refugee from Eritrea, a small country in Africa near Sudan and Ethiopia. “I don’t believe in giving up, even if it is a struggle.”

Although Osmon arrived in Columbia in February 2014, the process was not swift.

When Osmon’s first attempt to gain refugee status was denied in 2007, he appealed. All Osmon could do was simply wait for the result from the United Nations embassy in Delhi, India. Finally a year later, the status was approved.

“Every Tuesday an (excessive) line of people would form outside of the United Nations embassy. They would take 60 people in as refugees, coming from over 15 different countries,” Osmon said.

Osmon and others had to revert to new methods — sometimes extreme methods — to be able to have a chance at gaining refugee status.

“It was very hard. We slept on the street, outside of the embassy, to be near the front of the line when Tuesday came around,” Osmon said.

Osmon spent many years in his native country of Eritrea, which had gone through a political split from Ethiopia. Eventually, he found a temporary home in India. There Osmon worked as a project manager and consultant for alcoholics and drug addicts for 17 years.

Although he has an education and professional skillset, finding a job in the same area can elude refugees and immigrants when they first arrive in the U.S.

Osmon works currently as a Walmart greeter, but has worked at factories as well as other places. After injuring his left hand as a child, he was told the factory job was not for him.

“I was open to any job available,” Osmon said.

Osmon does not earn enough money to own a car so he uses COMO Connect, Columbia’s public transit system, to get to work everyday except Sundays, when the transit system doesn’t operate.

“I pay a man $80 to pick me up and take me home on Sundays. I think that is an issue with the public bus system that needs to be changed,” Osmon said.

Many of the resources enabling Osmon to work toward self-sufficiency began with the organization that sponsored him.

The Refugee and Immigration Services Center — a service of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri created in 1975 as a result of the Vietnamese Airlift — plays a big role in fostering stability within the refugee and immigrant population.

Katie Freehling, job developer, analyst and community outreach/volunteer coordinator for the organization, wants to make sure there is no misconception about refugees and immigrants.

“A refugee and an immigrant are two different things,” Freehling said. “Refugees are individuals who are forced to flee their country because of persecution; while an immigrant is someone who comes to the United States purposefully with the intention of having a more prominent role in society.”

The center wants to assure refugees a better life. That might mean putting them in jobs they might they might be overqualified for or that they might not enjoy.

“Beginning work early is really important to their success,” Freehling said. “We want them to know that their first job will not be their last job here.”

While dealing with the United Nations, Osmon was living on sporadic paychecks for his project manager job. That’s a big contrast from his life now where he receives paychecks every two weeks for his Walmart job, assuming perfect attendance, of course.

‘I prefer to be self-reliant than to be dependent on (the refugee center),” he said. “People have to find a way to fight and create for themselves.”.

During a panel discussion for the Missouri Urban Journalism Workshop, Freehling said that the center gives refugees certain opportunities that they might not have had in their home countries.

Each year, 150 refugees and immigrants are given this chance annually through The Refugee and Immigration Center in Columbia.

When people of other nationalities emigrate to the United States, they “have an opportunity to start their lives (over) again,” Freehling said.

Through Osmon’s personal experience with refugee organizations and the United Nations’ procedure, he said he recognizes the need for refining the financial and support structures so that there are better resources and opportunities for refugees.

“Putting all eggs in one basket is risky. You need to reach out to refugees (that’s how they’ll be successful),” Osmon said.


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