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Refugees' WV resettlement OK'd by State Dept.

Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House (from left), West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry member Annette Zavareei and Islamic Association of West Virginia Vice President Sue Barazi participate in a discussion about how to resettle Syrian refugees in the Charleston area during a meeting at St. John's Episcopal Church.

The U.S. Department of State has approved an application to establish a refugee resettlement program in Charleston, officials announced Wednesday. But that decision could be reversed by the incoming administration, according to an expert on refugee resettlement law.

The West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry, which also is the name local organizers have been informally using to describe their humanitarian effort, will begin as a program of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Rev. Canon E. Mark Stevenson, director at Episcopal Migration Ministries, announced that the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry had been approved to join its network of 30 refugee resettlement sites throughout the country.

“It is particularly heart-warming to me that this important step in the process of welcoming refugees comes as it does on the cusp of the commemoration and celebration of the birth of Jesus,” he said, “for, as Scripture tells us, it was not long afterwards that he himself became a refugee.”

Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies that work with the federal government and local groups to place refugees, and local volunteers have been working together in hopes of establishing a resettlement community in Charleston, making the city a safe haven for people who have had to flee their homes because of war, persecution or other violence.

In the ministry's “resettlement communities,” local organizers assist refugees with finding health care and work, translation and other services.

In October, they submitted an application for a resettlement agency to place 100 refugees in Charleston in the first year.

David Ramkey, chief financial officer for the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, said the refugees should be a “welcome addition” and “very productive part” of the community.

Rabbi Victor Urecki, of B'nai Jacob Synagogue, a local organizer, teared up as he shared the news.

“On the darkest and shortest day of the year, the sun is shining brightest in West Virginia today,” he said.

Urecki acknowledged that they could still face hurdles.

Neil Grungras, executive director of the nonprofit Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, said the Donald Trump administration could reverse the decision.

“The State Department is never obligated to allow even an approved refugee into the U.S.,” Grungras said. “The answer, with regard to the 100 approved, is that it probably depends where they are in their processing.

“If they ... have passed their security checks and medical exams and are merely waiting for a travel date, they may make it in. Otherwise, it's likely they won't.”

Kendall Martin, spokeswoman for Episcopal Migration Ministries, said “the statement is the statement,” asked that questions be sent via email and then did not respond to an email, so more specific information was not available Wednesday.

Lynn Clarke, a local organizer, said the group had been told that, if they were approved, the refugees would likely begin arriving this summer. She said the group anticipates refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but she said they also could be from other countries.

The group has talked about creating offices at St. John's Episcopal Church, in Charleston, for case workers and a director. They would still need to raise about $90,000 during the fiscal year.

Clarke expressed thanks to about 150 people who have offered to help.

“I'm so happy, in the Christmas season of hope, that we did get some good news,” she said.

Presidents have broad discretion when it comes to refugee resettlement in the United States. The Refugee Act of 1980 says that “the number of refugees who may be admitted ... shall be such number as the President determines, before the beginning of the fiscal year and after appropriate consultation, is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.”

President-elect Trump has made a wide range of xenophobic and Islamaphobic comments, including saying he wants to halt Syrian refugee resettlement, talking about the “Muslim problem,” and proposing banning adherents of Islam — a religion of about 1.6 billion people — from the United States.

His current plans are unclear but, on Nov. 6, he said he would not admit refugees “without the support of the local community where they are being placed.”

In May, an employee and consultant for Episcopal Migration Ministries visited Charleston to determine if the city could accommodate refugees and reported they found only support from essential stakeholders.

Mayor Danny Jones did not return a call seeking the city's stance Wednesday.

Jessica Tice, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, sent a statement.

“The decision regarding approval of the West Virginia Interfaith Refugee Ministry's plan was made solely by the U.S. Department of Justice,” the statement said. “It's vital that the vetting process through the federal government be thorough and complete. With that process in place, Gov. Tomblin sincerely hopes West Virginians will provide new residents the hospitality for which we are known.

The State Department is to vet the refugees by checking their names in an international database that includes known and suspected terrorists. Officers with the Department of Homeland Security also are to individually interview them, and their fingerprints will be checked against various databases. Certain refugees, including Syrians, also will require clearance from numerous law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Episcopal Migration Ministries has submitted only one other application for a resettlement community, for Wichita, Kansas, to the State Department in the past five years, and it was approved.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported in June 2016 that an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world were displaced from their homes at the end of 2015. That figure included 21.3 million refugees, more than half of whom are children. So far in 2016, 32 refugees have settled in West Virginia, of about 96,000 across the nation, according to the Refugee Processing Center.

Reach Erin Beck at erin.beck@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.