September is “Immigrant Heritage Month” according to a proclamation signed by Gov. Jim Justice in January. September also marks the first “Welcoming Week” celebration in our state, sponsored by West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry. Begun by Welcoming America in 2009, Welcoming Week brings together organizations and communities, immigrants, refugees and long-time residents to build strong connections and affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive places in achieving collective prosperity. In these times of increased division, our mutual progress depends on finding new ways to bring together people across lines of difference in order to develop greater understanding and mutual support.
Bringing people together and “striving to improve the lives of refugees” is what West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry (WVIRM) has been doing since its inception in 2015. Born as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis, WVIRM has expanded its efforts to include resettling persons seeking asylum from persecution by repressive regimes. In 2018 and 2019, WVIRM accepted three families for resettlement, two of whom call Charleston home and are contributing to the local economy.
In keeping with West Virginia’s history of “Welcome,” Gov. Justice responded to an Executive Order from President Trump by consenting to refugee resettlement in West Virginia, stating that “Refugees who have resettled here have become productive citizens and are welcomed into our West Virginia family.” Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin issued a similar response. We at WVIRM applaud Gov. Justice’s and Mayor Goodwin’s pronouncements that immigrants, and refugees in particular, are welcome here. These times of deep divisions in society call out for voices of unity.
Proclaiming that non-natives are welcome in West Virginia, however, is not enough. We must put feet to our faith, to paraphrase an African proverb often quoted by the late Rep. John Lewis. As people of faith, we are called to stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins of society. Welcoming the stranger and speaking out for those who cannot are tenets of the three Abrahamic faiths.
There are also economic reasons for West Virginians to welcome immigrants, refugees and others seeking asylum to our state.
Immigrants make up only 1.6% of West Virginia’s population, yet account for 19% of our state’s population growth, according to a March report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. This population growth helps to offset the exodus of native-born residents leaving the state, which has been ongoing since at least 1990. Immigrants constitute 2.2% of the workforce, 5.5% of business owners and 2.9% of the state’s economic output. As Lin Manuel Miranda wrote in Hamilton, “Immigrants! We get things done!” Welcoming non-natives is good for business.
Similarly, socioeconomic studies have shown that communities prosper when they are diverse and inclusive. Inclusive communities attract population growth, contribute to quality of life and prepare us for interactions with an increasingly global society. When all people feel a sense of belonging in their community, they work to make their community better. All people, including immigrants, refugees and persons seeking asylum, are valued contributors who are vital to the success of our communities and our shared future.
From Sept. 12 through Sept. 20, West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry will shine a spotlight on the contributions made to our state by its non-native population. The centerpiece of our celebration is a panel discussion on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/WVIRM. Faith leaders and others will discuss the importance of making West Virginia a welcoming place for all, and how you can participate in that effort.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are 79.5 million persons forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict or other violence. Twenty-six million are refugees and 4.2 million are asylum seekers. WVIRM believes that we may not be able to save the world, but we can save one life. You can help.