Emily Crane Linn has been with Canopy NWA since January 2016, when it was just a group of people who wanted to do something about helping refugees.
The organization first formed after the increased attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, where images of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean sea and walking across Eastern Europe on foot were all over the news. Now as the resettlement director for Canopy, Linn has overseen the arrival and resettlement of four refugee families since December 2016.
“Our community just wants to be able to give the refugees the very best that we can once they’re here,” Linn said.
Canopy works to ensure Northwest Arkansas is suitable for refugees appointed to the region for a period of three months. They help get them set up in a furnished apartment, apply for social security cards, enroll in schools and English classes, start a job search and get set up with all the other resources they need to know and how to plug into American society. Volunteers help with driving, interpretation, tutoring, office work and coordinating donations.
Prior to Canopy’s existence, there was no direct refugee resettlement organization in Arkansas.
“It’s like a shelter, it can be a big tent. You can come and take refuge under our canopy,” Linn said. “A canopy, by definition is big and far-reaching. I think of our community as being the canopy in the sense that it’s not just the four of us who happen to work in the office, it’s the people at DHS, the volunteers and the drivers and our local government. We are all the canopy.”
Usually refugee resettlement sites are conceived from the top down from national resettlement organizations. There are only nine national non-profits that have the privilege of resettling refugees through the state department. After forming, Canopy NWA submitted a proposal to partner with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, or LIRS, to be approved to resettle refugees.
Four families consisting of 18 individuals have already moved here and Canopy is designated to have 100 refugees by the end of the year. Two are from the Republic of Congo, and two are from Iraq.
One family from the Congo was blocked by President Donald Trump’s executive order from Jan. 27 that blocked all refugees for 120 days and all non-resident passengers coming from seven countries in the Middle East, including Iraq.
“When we first found out about the executive order, we were pretty heartbroken,” Linn said. “We watched people’s flights get cancelled, and our co-sponsors had been preparing to welcome the family. We had to tell them we don’t think they’re coming anymore.”
However, last week, after a federal judge in the Ninth District Court put a stay on the executive order, a federal appeals court denied the reinstatement of the executive order. Part of the reasoning for the court’s decision was there has never been evidence of a terrorist attack from a refugee in the United States. This allowed for the Congolese family to travel to America again.
“If you don’t like the way that the refugee vetting process works, and in my opinion it’s very thorough, that’s okay,” Linn said. “Go talk with someone about it, or your representatives. Just don’t talk to me about it because that’s not my job. My job is for people who come here vulnerable, who have nothing, need a new place to start. I want to give them the very best. It’s in our best interest as Americans to give these people the best start that we can.”
Canopy has no say in which refugees are sent here, and by time they are vetted and approved to arrive here many have been through several years of processing.
The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who has been forced from their country because of war, persecution or violence. More than 65 million people have been displaced around the world, the highest since World War II, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
The political unrest in Democratic Republic of Congo has led to the highest number of refugees in the US in 2016. Nearly 39,000 Muslim refugees entered the U.S. in fiscal 2016, the highest number on record, according to data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.
Depending on where the refugee camps are, processing can take as long as 17 years in some cases — which is typical for refugees from The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Once processed, in most cases they are normally encouraged to return to their homeland following their nation’s conflict resolve or resettle in the country they originally fled to.
The United States is among 23 countries that have agreed to take in refugees should they have no other options. Though only 1 percent of all refugees are resettled in different countries, a small percentage of them non-voluntarily end up in America.
About 3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program and the current national standard for the screening and admission of refugees into the country.
Today, the U.S. refugee admissions and vetting process can take up between 18 to 24 months, and includes a review of applications by the State Department and other federal agencies, in-person interviews, health screenings and, for many, cultural orientations. All vetting is handled at foreign camps.
Once cleared to travel, refugee cases are passed off to the state department to move to America.
One of the major takeaways from starting the refugee resettlement efforts locally has been the encouragement and support the organization has gotten from the community.
Since launching in spring 2016, there are now 13 fully formed volunteer teams of 8 to 12 people who are formally involved or already are co-sponsoring families. Canopy’s database of people interested in helping is in the thousands, said Clint Schnekloth, co-founder and chairman of the board for Canopy.
“It’s really brought the faith community together in some cool ways,” Schnekloth said. “We’ve gotten to know the Muslim community a lot better as a result of engaging in this kind of work. We’ve gotten to know other like-minded congregations and faith communities better and partnered with them. I learned a ton about all the opportunities here in our region and how open it is to newcomers. It makes me very proud to live in Northwest Arkansas.”
A recent interest and volunteer recruitment meeting had as many as 300 people in attendance, Schnekloth said.
Jessica Keahey felt inspired to volunteer for Canopy after a friend recommended she turn her political frustrations into enacting change in the community. stuffing thank yous and tax receipts for folks who have donated.
“I think it’s something we should be supporting as Americans and as patriots,” Keahey said. “(Volunteering for Canopy) in some small way makes me feel like I can help people in the community immediately and see some tangible change.”
Community Clinic in Fayetteville has a collaborative partnership with Canopy and provides medical and dental services to refugees, such as immunizations and wellness checks.
“Working with Canopy and the families has been a good experience for the staff at Community Clinic,” said Misti McCoy, clinical resource and program director at Community Clinic. “We are a country of immigrants and we all came from other countries at one time or another. The genuine appreciation that the families show to our staff warms our hearts, their smiles say it all.”
To learn more about Canopy NWA or learn more information about how to get involved, visit canopynwa.org.