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Refugees in Iowa: How Welcoming Are We, Really?

Daniel Moon
Part of the Wat Lao Temple in Des Moines, which was founded by refugees of the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War, Iowa earned a reputation for being one of the most welcoming places in the world for refugees. But since September 11, 2001, the number of Iowa families hosting refugee families has dropped precipitously, by over 90 percent according to the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Immigration.

John Wilken, Director of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, says there are a number of reasons for that, including a change in the direction of services and a change in how much volunteer time Iowans are willing to commit to helping newcomers to the state. 

"From 1975 up through 1997 or 1998, most refugees coming to Iowa had sponsors. They could be a church, they could be a group of private individuals. They could be relatives to the people who are coming. That’s not the model any longer," Wilken explains. 

Since 2005, all of the state's refugee resettlement offices have been in Polk county. Wilken says that affects how many families can host refugees as well.

"Most people are resettled to Polk county because that's where the services are," he says. "Refugees did not like being so scattered. They started to migrate to places where they could get jobs and where they had family."

During this hour of River to River, Wilken talks with host Emily Woodbury. Rachel Kinker, Refugee Resettlement Program Manager at Catholic Charities of Des Moines and Phensy Pane, a representative of the Lao-American Association of Iowa. 

Pane says that when she came to the United States in 1979 as an 11-year-old, her sponsor became like a second parent to her. 

"For me, my parents didn't speak English, so he helped us with everything. He taught us how to buy groceries, how to drive and helped us find work," she says. "We have stayed close. We are so grateful; he really became a part of our family." 

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Digital Producer