After a tough four years, Community Refugee and Immigration Services is on the rise again
Tara Dhungana wasn’t born a refugee.
He was born in Bhutan, a country in Asia, and shared a home with 12 family members including his grandparents. His parents are hardworking — they both worked on a farm, and his mother cared for the family.
Dhungana was 12 years old when he and his family were exiled from Bhutan in the early 1990s and relocated to a Nepali refugee camp. His father and grandfather avoided being captured by hiding in brush for several months.
They left with a hope to return soon, but the day never came, Dhungana says. Instead, he would go on to spend nearly 20 years in the refugee camp before resettling in Columbus in 2009 through a resettlement program with Us Together. His parents and other relatives joined him months later.
After a short tenure with FedEx, Dhungana began volunteering with Community Refugee and Immigration Services in 2009. In 2013, he was promoted to associate director of career services where he has since placed thousands of refugees in jobs.
“I do not want newly arriving refugees to go through the same kind of situation I had to go through,” he says. “... It’s very difficult to navigate the system, let alone the language. If you don’t speak the language, it’s 1,000 times more difficult.”
Career services is just one facet of all that Community Refugee and Immigration Services offers. It also provides mentorship opportunities, senior programs and legal aid, assists with transportation to jobs and helps refugees find a home. It partners with Airbnb for its Open Homes program, which provides temporary housing.
Today, Dhungana faces new difficulties in his role at the nonprofit. Since 2017, the number of refugees he has placed into jobs each year has been cut in half. Typically, he was helping an average of 400 to 450 refugees find jobs each year, he says, but in the 2020 fiscal year, he was only able to place around 200.
He doesn’t doubt his abilities, though. Despite the cut, the 90-day job retention rate for the refugees he has placed consistently sits around 90 percent, he says. He has nearly 100 employment partners locally and regionally.
Angela Plummer, the nonprofit’s executive director, has seen years of highs and lows since she began working with the organization. In 1998 she began as a volunteer attorney and was promoted to her current role in 2003. Even so, she can’t begin to put into words how difficult the past four years have been.
“It’s devastatingly hard to have worked for decades trying to bring families together to have your work completely undone,” Plummer says. “To have daily inquiries of, ‘When’s my family coming?’ to say, ‘No time soon,’ every single day.’”
In 2016 the nonprofit resettled 833 refugees. In 2018, it resettled 325. By 2020, the number fell to 106. Struggles for the organization came following restrictive policy changes during the Trump administration and a lack of funding, she says. COVID-19 also forced the organization to adjust, but its services did not change.
“Getting through the Trump years was a marathon,” Plummer says. “And we could see the finish line …. and then they moved the finish line. So, we just keep on running, and I think we’re all tired.”
Currently, there are 50 employees with Community Refugee and Immigration services, but they are hiring with the potential to have 60—an impressive jump from the one dozen employees that began in 1995.
Despite the hardship, things are looking up. The nonprofit is welcoming 250 inbound Afghanistan refugees to Columbus, Plummer says.
She hopes the nonprofit’s efforts have made a lasting change for all residents. Next year it has proposed 959 refugees be resettled in Columbus.
“I hope we’ve helped contribute to the vibrancy and the diversity of the city and have met the needs of refugees who have come here,” she says. Refugees are an added value, she adds, not only economically but as friends.
Community Refugee and Immigration Services
1925 E. Dublin-Granville Road, Suite 102, Columbus 43229
Mission: To help refugees and immigrants reach safety and stability, sustain self-sufficiency and integrate into the community.
2020 revenue: $2,680,176
Funding: 9% from donations; 89% from government; 1% from United Way, Columbus Foundation and others.