Garden City’s International Rescue Committee office is on a countdown.

Members of the limited staff have ended their tenures. The Fulton Terrace office has been packed away, the internet shut down. By the end of the month, the location will close, a decision laid down by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. State Department due to lower resettlement numbers in the region.

To Site Manager Amy Longa, it’s a difficult process. She has said for months that every week has felt like one step closer to the office’s closing day on Tuesday.

“I was going to say ‘Have a seat,’ but there are no chairs,” she said on Monday, looking for space in an old conference room.

The closure’s been an incremental process. The office resettled its last client in February and has been holding exit meetings with refugees, showing them where they can find local aid after the office shuts down. Even after the doors close, Longa and volunteer coordinator Kaitlynn Lagman will finalize office and program reports.

For four years, the local IRC office has helped resettle and acclimate refugees to life in southwest Kansas, particularly in and around Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal. Staff and volunteers have bolstered a local network of institutional support for refugees and helped clients reunite with family members once an ocean away, obtain citizenship, locate housing, employment, language and healthcare resources and bridge cultural differences or misunderstandings.

“We were actually from limping, crawling, walking — we were beginning to run. So 2017 was our year to begin to run, and 2018 would be really going 100 mph. So we were caught at a time when we were really beginning to grow really well,” Longa said.

Dwindling numbers

By the end of the year, the number of United States IRC offices will shrink from 28 to 25, closing locations in Garden City, Miami and Midland, Texas. Last year, those three offices were projected to resettle less than 100 clients in their areas as a result of a recent, mandated cutoff from the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration following restrictive federal immigration policies, said Tracy Reines, IRC regional director of U.S. programs.

Reines said the new restrictions were a result of increasingly restrictive immigration policies set forward by President Donald Trump's administration in the past 18 months. Trump has used executive orders to limit the number and country of origin of refugees moving to the United States, ultimately capping refugee immigration at 45,000 for fiscal year 2018 and banning entry from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.

The number of refugees traveling to the United States dropped from roughly 100,000 in fiscal year 2017 to 20,000 in fiscal year 2018, Reines said. The IRC often decides resettlement locations based on where relatives or other connections were settled beforehand.

For Garden City, a smaller office that largely resettled Burmese and Somali refugees, the policies hit especially hard. The office resettled 90, 64 and 84 clients over the past three fiscal years, but the most recent period saw only 12 by the time Garden City stopped accepting new clients in February.

Longa said the state department’s policy did not take into account the full scope of the Garden City office. Southwest Kansas was a unique region due to the number of already stateside refugees, still in their first five years in the United States, who are attracted to the area for work at meat packing plants. These refugees, which she said can add up to at least 250 households a year, make up a significant portion of clients accepting services.

“Those needs are not going to go away, because they're still here. They’ll still be here,” Longa said.

Building connections

Nashwa Dafreen left her home of Sudan at 24, living in Egypt for two years before following her husband to Garden City in September 2016.

Longa quickly embraced her, Dafreen said, inviting her over often to spend time with Longa’s family. When Dafreen learned she was pregnant two months later, Longa was the first to know.

“They gave me a family, which I thought was very special for me. I didn’t feel alone anymore…” Dafreen said. “When you go to the new country and leave your family, you feel alone. You need someone with you. With the IRC, they gave me this. I have a company, now. I have a family. I have a sister.”

Longa, who’s from Uganda but was displaced in South Sudan for several years, worked in child advocacy for the United Nations and fought for human rights in Uganda. When she moved to the United States to join her husband, she said, though there was a culture shock, she had advantages over most refugees. She could speak, read and write in English, drive and had access to a car.

Her experience was a fraction of the struggles many of her clients face when entering the country, she said. But it gave her a tangible idea of their experiences, one that made it easy for clients to connect with her, and one that showed her “how important it is to be connected.”

The IRC office’s staff, including Development Specialist Bethany Shirk, Lagman and others who came and left over the organization’s four years, were the ground floor of those connections, followed closely by its volunteers.

Lagman said the office worked with about 75 volunteers since 2014, including administrative aids, tutors and members of the intimate family mentor program. The mentor program partnered interested community members with a refugee or refugee family, acting as a liaison and lifeline to families adjusting to a new place.

Mentors have helped refugees learn how to drive, set up medical appointments or help them encounter tasks or places that may be intimidating from behind a language barrier, Lagman said. The IRC often asked mentors to commit to four to six months with a client, she said, but that they often extended long past that.

The program was one of the many ways Longa said the office made difficult experiences a little easier for refugees. She remembers reaching out to friends to help a client pay his rent and avoid eviction, or helping an ambitious Somali refugee learn how to drive and save money, giving him the foundation he needed to start a small truck transportation business.

The office was present when refugees triumphed or when they faltered, Longa said. It connected local institutions with translators and consoled families in times of tragedy. When one client was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the office helped the family create a plan ahead of his passing.

Continuing the mission

Many of the IRC’s cases now hang in limbo, or must continue without the help of the office, Longa said. One client is still waiting for his family to join him from Asia. The day after the office closes, another is undergoing surgery the office helped set up.

The most Longa and her employees can do is be present as people instead of an institution, she said. Longa said Shirk had developed a close relationship with a client and would continue to help them past the end of the month. And she plans to stay involved in any way she can.

“We knew it was going to be a tough road, but we never turned our back. And we continue to advocate on behalf of those families. It is tough to have to close the Garden City office, but it is not going to close our mission,” Longa said.

What the IRC, its staff and its volunteers built will not vanish when its doors close, Lagman and Longa said.

Lagman said she believed five to six family mentors may continue to support their families for the foreseeable future. Volunteers like Jennifer Kentner, who trained with the Wichita IRC office to help local clients complete and process green card and citizenship applications, could now partner with other local organizations. And a network of state and community institutions will be able to provide similar services and access to resources as the IRC did, although sometimes with less convenient or less familiarity.

Regardless, Dafreen and more recent client Idi Mulanda, who said he stops by the office several times a week, said they are not sure what they’ll do when the office closes. Mulanda said even six more months with the office would have made a fundamental difference on his well-being.

“The IRC helped me so much … If they leave me after this, I don’t know how can I go. I don’t know where can I go,” Mulanda said.

Maintaining the network

Garden City’s IRC has stretched farther than the limits of its services, Longa said. The organization has worked alongside institutions throughout the city to best help refugees and best inform the wider community’s understanding of their experiences.

It’s a network that begins with relationships and communication. Longa said she and other IRC employees had personal contacts at Garden City USD 457, Russell Child Development Center, Genesis Family Health, LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition, St. Catherine Hospital, the Salvation Army, the City of Garden City, the Finney County Attorney’s Office, the court systems, the Garden City Police Department, local religious organizations and county health clinics in Finney, Ford and Seward counties. Information, education and resources were always a phone call away, she said.

“The network is tight in Garden City. It’s so beautifully tight … No problem has been too large for us,” Longa said.

Local entities said the IRC had affected their work in different ways.

Allie Medina, human resources director for the City of Garden City, said she had met with Longa through the city’s Cultural Relations Board for over a year. On the board, Longa was able to provide perspective and direction, Medina said, starting discussions that helped the city incorporate city information in more languages and implement more symbol-based signage.

“There were areas that we maybe would not have usually focused on had those not been brought to our attention, so it was great having them on (the board) as a representation. They really helped me get into that focus of knowing where to look for those points of ‘How can we make our services better for all community members?’” Medina said.

Medina pointed to the IRC’s foundation of trust with their clients as a real strength, one that was used to connect them to resources and entities that may seem foreign.

At St. Catherine, that trust has been used to connect refugees with healthcare and processes they may be wary of, said Kayte Fulton, director of Community Health, Mission Integration and Patient Experience at the hospital. She said she had worked with Longa through the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition, largely finding ways to educate and communicate about the hospital’s care procedures and payment plans.

“They are an incredibly trusted hub for primary resettled (peoples) and those who have been here for a long time. They are able to create a trusting space. They are able to serve as a vehicle and a conduit for domestic services, for setting up house, for getting people over here to me if they have a problem with their bill or they don’t understand something … Just having that navigation process in place is going to be a loss,” Fulton said.

Callie Dyer, executive director of the health coalition, said the coalition and IRC worked in tandem to provide resources in the area, particularly for refugees, such as basic English as a second language and citizenship classes. The two institutions have shared materials, staff and financial resources to help refugee residents adapt to Garden City, she said.

Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz has worked with the IRC in his own capacity, serving on the organization’s quarterly board. He said understanding refugees’ cultural differences and backgrounds has been a priority at the police department for decades. It helped officers establish trust with residents who may be wary of law enforcement and gave them a platform to educate refugees on laws or procedures. IRC meetings always helped the GCPD improve, he said.

Longa said the IRC acted as the center of a wheel of Garden City refugee resources over the past four years, offering feedback to institutions eager to help and connecting services to those who needed them.

As that center falls away, local institutions will continue the IRC’s efforts to serve regional and local refugees, representatives said.

Since March, Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, which often shared clients with the IRC, has worked through a contract with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services to provide several of the IRC’s services, such as cash and medical assistance and aspects of resettlement, said Executive Director Debbie Snapp.

Fulton said the health coalition was working to recreate the foundation of trust with refugee clients that the IRC had established. She pointed to the Ethnic Empowerment Network, a monthly meeting of community leaders and spokespeople of immigrant communities hosted by Tyson Fresh Foods Chaplain Jonathon Galia, as one of several possible ways local organizations could open themselves up to immigrants and refugees.

“It can be kind of a scary time right now for immigrants and refugees, many of whom aren’t sure if they’re welcome in our country anymore. And we want to make sure that they know here in Garden City that they are most welcome," Fulton said. "While it’s very sad to see the IRC close its office here, the fabric of this community continues to support our immigrants and refugees in every way, in every aspect of their health and well-being."

Final goodbyes

A little over two weeks before the closing date, the IRC held a dinner at Garden Valley Church, a longtime partner of the office. Representatives from the city, the GCPD, community organizations, volunteers, donors, supporters and clients sat together as those involved shared their experiences, thanked those who helped in myriad ways and bid farewell to the entity that brought them together.

Longa later said she was at peace with the closure. The IRC had done its part. But there was still work to be done.

And so, standing among her peers at the dinner, she issued a challenge to Garden City Mayor Roy Cessna, City Manager Matt Allen and the rest of the extended network of people she knew cared about the city and all its residents.

“The community entrusted you and looks upon you to show them what you say, to show them what you do, whether in formal settings or informal settings. Is this going to be a home to a majority and not a minority, or will it be hospitable to the minority and the majority? Will it depend on your color? Will it depend on how far your origin and background was?” Longa said.

“The ball is in your court,” she said. “You’ve been very gracious. You’ve given me your ears. You’ve opened your doors to me. But if someone doesn’t approach you, will you step up and go knock on the doors?”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.