Welcoming the Stranger: Refugee Resettlement in the Diocese of Olympia

Diane Wells

Diane Wells, CA
Archivist & Records Manager Diocese of Olympia, Seattle, WA
DWells@ecww.org
https://ecww.org/about-the-diocese-of-olympia/departments/archives/

For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. –Matthew, chapter 25: verse 35

Every year, millions of refugees around the world leave their homes in hope of escaping tyranny, poverty and persecution.

Nguyen Family
The Nguyen Family from Vietnam Olympia Churchman Photo. Photo courtesy the Archives of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

A small percentage find permanent residence in a new country. Some arrive in Seattle, Washington. Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) is among the organizations that give refugees a chance at a new life. The Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office, a local affiliate for EMM, has assisted refugees from around the world since 1978. Their programs have welcomed more than 20,000 men, women and children from more than 30 countries and provided a variety of services including, food, shelter, community orientation, English tutoring, job training and placement.

Everyone assisted by the Refugee Resettlement Office has a case file. That translates into thousands of files – most of which are in paper.

Refugee Resettlement Office files
Refugee Resettlement Office files. Photo courtesy the Archives of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

These files not only document individual journeys – but also collectively document global strife, immigration patterns and the role of The Episcopal Church in this very real drama of life and death. In the Diocese of Olympia, the Archives has taken on the responsibility for preserving these files and has just completed a long-term digitization project to capture these important records.

For years, the files were stored in a room at the Refugee Resettlement Office where the boxes and cabinets containing them were stacked from floor to ceiling. As the number of files grew, some were stored off-site in storage lockers. Neither location was particularly secure or environmentally stable – but worst of all was the difficulty of retrieval.

RRO Records in Storage
Storage room at the Refugee Resettlement Office with boxes and cabinets containing stacke from floor to ceiling. Photo courtesy the Archives of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

These files have – quite literally – been on my mind for years. After surveying the records and studying the options, I put together a proposal for our diocesan Board of Directors, recommending that the files be digitized for permanent retention.

My proposal emphasized four points justifying the project and the funds I was requesting:

Why Do Refugee Case Files Matter?

  1. Files provide documentation of the Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement program
  2. Files are important to our national security
  3. Files provide detailed information on the individuals involved
  4. Files have broad historical significance for the Pacific Northwest

The Board accepted my proposal and authorized funds for the project.

This was certainly all well and good – and went a long way towards moving the project along. However, there was still one major hurdle to overcome. Before the files could be digitized, they had to be ‘prepped’ –  staples, clips and other fasteners removed; pages straightened; and a cover sheet created for each file – a necessary but labor intensive and time-consuming process.

Staples, etc.
Staples, clips and other fasteners removed from Refugee Resettlement Office files during processing. Photo courtesy the Archives of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

The cover sheets were perhaps the key to the whole project as they provided searchable index terms for individual records. I focused on 5 discrete pieces of information from each file: Overseas Case Number; Name; Social Security Number; Date of Arrival; and Country of Origin.

As multiple family members were often included in one case file, only the name and social security number of the head of household was used for the cover sheet. This information is, of course, confidential and is accessed only according to our diocesan confidential records policy.

I started by prepping the files myself, but other duties kept getting in the way. Fortunately, volunteers came along at just the right time. During the first year, we processed and digitized six years of case files. During the second year, another seven years was completed. Then, I lost my best volunteer to a paying job (imagine that) – and the project slowed to a crawl. I realized that if I had to depend on volunteers – or my own erratic schedule – it would take forever to process the remaining twenty-five years-worth of files. The solution was to hire someone to do the job. The problem, as usual, was money.

For help, I turned to Mark Duffy, Canonical Archivist and Director of Archives for the Archives of the Episcopal Church. Mark had consulted with me on the project from the beginning – and he now assisted me in obtaining grant funds to complete it.

Consequently, I was able to hire a project archivist and the project is now complete.

Refugee Files - Disk with Paper Files
Processed Refugee Resettlement Office files. Photo courtesy the Archives of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

Let me just say in closing that the decision to undertake the task of digitally preserving these refugee case files – though time consuming, often frustrating and certainly expensive – was well worth the effort – particularly in view of today’s uncertainty regarding all refugee programs.

Episcopal Migration Ministries is currently at risk – as are all its affiliates – at least six of which are being closed. However, as can be seen from this February 10, 2017 Episcopal News Service headline:

Olympia diocese welcomes refugees, sues to keep resettlement efforts alive

Matthew, chapter 25: verse 35 is taken seriously in the Diocese of Olympia:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. –

I’m proud of the fact that the Diocese of Olympia Archives was able to contribute to maintaining the integrity of the Refugee Resettlement program and of being able to preserve almost forty years-worth of these important and unique case files.

 

One thought on “Welcoming the Stranger: Refugee Resettlement in the Diocese of Olympia

  1. How fortunate that not only are these lovely people being welcomed in and helped, but that this is being documented for others to peruse and learn from! These documents are good for history of the region, for history of immigration, for our country,,,for their people, for foreign relations, and for church relations. And the photographs make it come so much more alive.

    Like

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