Refugees on a field trip to Newport

One question nobody ever seems to ask: “why refugees?”

Maybe it’s self-evident. Perhaps people are being polite.

I know it’s not like this everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if we all got a bit of Roger Williams’ tolerance written into our DNA as Rhode Islanders. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine Providence having a mayor (like Manchester, New Hampshire) asking for a moratorium on refugees.

Our experience is that, whether we’re selling granola in South County or working at Amos House, the refugees we work with have been treated with exceptional kindness and interest.

A few facts: Around 8,000 refugees have been settled in Rhode Island since 1983. Up until 2005 these came from (by population size in descending order) USSR, Liberia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hungary, Poland, Albania, former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Ethiopia/Eritrea. This is one of the great things about living in Providence. Even if you don’t have the money to travel the world, you still don’t have to live in a cocoon. The world is right here.

To put this in perspective, about 2 million refugees have been settled in the US during this time.

Rhode Island continues to settle refugees at the modest rate of 150-250 per year. During the last 6 years refugees they’ve come primarily from Liberia, Burundi, Eritrea, Iraq, Bhutan, Burma.

Not surprisingly, refugees arrive in waves corresponding loosely to world conflicts. It would make an interesting history to map out the origins of first-country displacement with arrival dates in the United States. Vietnamese, Hmong, Iraqi arrived fairly soon after displacement, whereas some of the Burundians arriving in the Rhode Island had lived in Tanzania since ’74 (meaning most were born in camps). The Bhutanese settling in Rhode Island were in camps in Nepal since the early 90’s.

Some of our thinking behind the Granola Project is that for refugee resettlement to be successful, it needs to be connected to job creation. We’ve been experimenting with this on a very small scale. Now that we’re sure it’s working, we’re brainstorming about ways to expand. One of our dreams is to build a business incubator for refugees. But bottom line, we think the most effective and efficient way to help refugees find work involves an “on ramp” of on-the-job training.

Refugees arrive with a interesting mix of challenges and strengths which affect their employment prospects:


refugees who arrive without savings, resources, or families are among Rhode Island’s most vulnerable. They face significant language, education, and economic barriers and do not understand American culture. Not surprisingly, many are victims of trauma and vulnerable to PTSD, fear, low confidence. As anyone who’s experienced these challenges knows, they can be turned into strengths; but access to a confidence-building on-ramp to employment makes a huge difference.


New minority populations such as the Burundian, Burmese, and Bhutanese are arriving without established ethnic community to welcome or assist them. This can create an additional obstacle to self-sufficiency.

Limited job prospects:

Refugees can face a career of limited prospects. Those who are minimally educated or preliterate may wait years to find a stable entry-level job. Those who come with a good education may stay in entry-level jobs far too long—sometimes for the rest of their working lives. Even the most capable need intervention to gain the cultural expertise necessary to successfully start a small business.

Positive outlook:

Refugees tend to see Rhode Island as their “promised land" and consequently take a hopeful and grateful posture towards difficult circumstances. The most difficult living or working conditions here usually represent an improvement from the degrading, dangerous conditions of a camp. Those who were denied legal employment in camps consider their legal right to work a privilege.

Highly motivated:

Resettlement is a singular achievement made by less than 1% of the world’s refugees. These refugees tend to have strong survival instincts, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a robust work ethic. They are disciplined about saving, and share the little they earn with extended family members languishing in camps. First arrivals of new ethnic communities become de facto leaders whose choices, and success or failure deeply impact their community’s path of development.

Open to new relationships and connections: Refugees bring a broad perspective on the world, and, at least initially, are eager and willing to tell their story. They treasure meaningful cross-cultural relationships and often respond to overtures with openness and trust.


Written by Keith and Geoff

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