Refugees in Iowa – show notes

The Haiti earthquake got the Iowa Journal staff thinking of angles of that story important to Iowans. We talked about foreign adoptions after learning about the link between Haiti and Pella. We looked at people coming and going to Haiti to help in the recovery. We wondered if adoptions would pick up, or if the United States and Iowa would look at welcoming Haitians to the States. But what we started to settle on was the refugee history the state of Iowa has.

When the Des Moines Register published this story on January 27, 2010, we knew were on the right track.

The Register story told of two agencies, Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services and Lutheran Services in Iowa, and how they would cease resettlements of refugees in Iowa.

In the past 35 years, some 30,000 refugees have resettled in Iowa. The two agencies ending their efforts were responsible for 86% of the refugees who came to Iowa in the last fiscal year.

That left Catholic Charities, who was already having financial difficulties of their own, as the only resettlement agency left in Iowa.

We are featuring a group of refugees from Iraq who are here in Iowa now. They have formed a band and try to play when they are not working. There story is similar to many, trying to work and provide for their families. That story will air prior to our discussion on Thursday.

Here are some of my notes for Thursday’s show on Refugees in Iowa. The link is to the last post about the show including the official release from Iowa Public Television.

The source of the first part is the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Bureau of Refugee Services.

Iowa’s history of Bureau of Refugee Services started after the fall of Saigon in April, 1975. Arthur Crisfield, a former US government employee in Laos wrote 30 US governors looking for help in finding a safe place for the 1.228 Tai Dam people who came in to Laos. Governor Ray responded and by October, 1975, the first group of 300 Tai Dam arrived in California. On November, 3 plane loads arrived in Des Moines.

In 1979, this time Iowa committed to receive more than 1,500 refugees from Cambodia. But the public opinion wasn’t all in favor, about 51% were against the move in a Des Moines Register poll.

1979 saw the Iowa Joint Voluntary Agencies created. The IJVA still exists today. Iowa SHARES (Iowa Sends Help To Aid Refugees and End Starvation) was established. In May 1983, the Iowa Refugee Service Center expanded to Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Grinnell, Marshalltown, Mason City, Ames, Clinton, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Ottumwa and Waterloo.

The Bureau of Refugee Programs resettled refugees from Eastern Europe countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

In mid-1995, Sudanese refugees migrated to Iowa. In the late 90s, Iowa had one of the largest populations of Sudanese refugees in the US.

From 10.10.08 to 9.30.09, refugee arrivals in Polk County totaled 909. Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritria were the top countries of origin. That year, there were refugees from 12 different countries that came and settled in Iowa.

Now to some information from Lutheran Services in Iowa.

There are more than 10 million refugees in the world today. The US welcomes only a tiny fraction, less than 1%, with annual admission levels set at 80,000. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is one of 10 national organizations that resettles refugees on behalf of the US government.

In 2009, LSI’s Refugee program settled 450 refugees in Des Moines with a goal of transition into new lives of self-sufficiency. Some of the services they provide refugees: Locating an apartment, enrolling children in school, finding employment for adults, assisting with emergency situations and referrals for community resources. In 2008, LSI started Muscatine Community Refugee Services to help 80 refugees from Liberia, Sudan and Mauritania.

January 27, 2010 brought the news that LSI will discontinue refugee resettlement services. LSI still will offer services and support for the next six months. But limited funding was cited as one reason for the closure.

What questions should we talk about with John Wilken, bureau chief, Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services; Jill Stuecker, director for the refugee resettlement program, Lutheran Services in Iowa; and Sol Varisco-Santini, program director of outreach services, Catholic Charities, part of the Diocese of Des Moines?

How about:

What is a refugee? What is the difference between refugee and immigrant?

What will closing your (Lutheran Services in Iowa and IA Bureau of Refugee Services) doors mean for Iowa?

How do Iowans respond when you say refugees?

What happens to those that already here and were counting on services to help in the transition to life in Iowa?

Should we be helping refugees come here who are going after the same jobs many out of work Iowans are competing for?

I’m interested in the rest of your questions for our panel. Drop them in the comments or send them to


  1. Hello fellow Wartburg Alumni,

    Hope you and your family are doing well!

    I worked for Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI) for approximately 9 years. I was honored to be a team player in developing the Refugee Mentoring program in the Muscatine area. Through this I was able to do some shadowing of the LSI refugee program in Des Moines. Jill Stuecker is a wise and passionate leader around integration and self-sufficiency development of refugees within our American culture. One question that I would like to hear presented to the panel of professionals is why do they believe the federal government has continued to decrease these dollars throughout the USA and what will the overall effects be? Another thought is, where will refugees turn to now for acclimation, advocacy and mentoring? Best wishes to you tonight with this piece. I will be watching and hope that many other Iowans tune in to bring awareness to this need within Iowa. We must create new and effective ways to provide these services throughout the Country.


    Christy Roby Williams
    Wartburg ’97

  2. Great program on Iowa Journal last night Paul……it was short and I wanted to see more. To me, that lends to the interesting content.

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