Advocating for refugees in challenging times
Courtney McCurdy’s commitment to serving global communities has roots at UW Bothell. Building upon her love of travel and desire to work internationally, the IAS alum majored in Global Studies to enhance her cultural competency. As a student, she participated in an online learning exchange with South African students and took part in the Washington D.C. Human Rights Seminar, which she describes as a transformational experience that cemented her commitment to human rights.
After graduating in 2003 and spending many years in the trenches as an ESL instructor, international relief worker, and refugee resettlement program manager, McCurdy joined North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as a Refugee Program Consultant. In this role, she provides support and technical assistance to refugee service providers, while advocating for their needs in an unprecedented time.
Recent changes to federal policy are having dramatic effects on refugee populations and those who serve them. As policies shift at the federal level, local providers are constantly adapting, and McCurdy is on the forefront, helping these groups navigate the changing landscape.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of forcibly displaced people throughout the world at 70.8 million. The U.S. has a long history of providing assistance and protection to persons fleeing persecution and violence; in the postwar period, the U.S. assumed global leadership in resettlement efforts. In its 40-year history, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has held a consistent admissions goal of 70,000 to 90,000 refugee arrivals nationwide. However, those trends have been effectively reversed. In FY 2019, the ceiling was reduced to 30,000, and in FY 2020 is capped at 18,000, according to the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions Memorandum issued November 2.
Currently, North Carolina is seventh in the nation for receiving refugees, with over 1,300 new arrivals in 2019. The majority of refugees are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (45%), Burma (22%), and Afghanistan (8%). Like other states, North Carolina’s refugee acceptance rates are impacting service providers. Client numbers and demographics are shifting, and decreased funding is destabilizing programs and staffing. “Under the current administration, it’s been challenging,” says McCurdy. “Funding is not coming in a timely manner, and we are seeing high staff turnover among our partner agencies.”
North Carolina’s Refugee Support Program provides transitional support services to refugees for up to five years or until they become U.S. citizens. Traditionally, service providers have prioritized “new arrivals,” but with that number decreasing, they’ve had to recalibrate. “Our agencies are so amazing, because they think outside the box. When serving the normal level, they are ‘all hands on deck,’ between meeting new arrivals that the airport, helping them find jobs, and making sure they feel safe and supported. Now, they are focusing more on services for those who have been here longer, like vocational training, skills recertification, citizenship classes, and navigating the healthcare system.”
McCurdy notes that the shift in North Carolina’s refugee population has also impacted the local economy. Restaurants, hotels, and poultry farms that have relied on refugee employees are struggling to stay afloat. “It’s flip-flopped. It used to be there weren’t enough jobs for refugees, and now there aren’t enough to fill the jobs. Many of these businesses have made investments in these communities. They provide ESL classes, they promote them as supervisors, and some provide health insurance.”
Despite these challenges, McCurdy is undaunted. “I’ve always wanted to help those who are underserved. What keeps me motived is the team I work with, the resettlement community, the refugees themselves.”
A few years ago, McCurdy spearheaded the event “Local Strangers: Global Food,” which celebrates the culinary talents of refugees and immigrants while raising funds for local agencies. In all she does, McCurdy aims to educate communities on who refugees are, where they come from, and the benefits they bring. She believes that refugees and immigrants are the soul of America’s global communities. When asked why the U.S. should continue accepting refugees, McCurdy replied, “Because they are what America is about. We are all immigrants. We have so much to learn from them.”