The director of the largest refugee assistance program in Alaska is leaving after more than a decade, just as the program is being threatened by a federal budget crisis in Washington.
Karen Ferguson has spent the final weeks of her job sending out urgent e-mails. She’s worried about what federal cuts will mean for the refugee assistance program in Alaska—a program she’s worked very hard to build.
“Obviously that could be devastating,” she said. “We will be faced with the challenge of whether we accept human beings who are fleeing from their countries or whether we say this is a bad idea and we can’t accept them.”
For nearly 11 years, Ferguson has served as the program director and state refugee coordinator for Catholic Social Services in Alaska. Ferguson was key to getting the refugee program at Catholic Social Services started in 2003. Since then, she’s helped refugees from the former Soviet Union to Bhutan to Somalia find new lives in Alaska.
She happens to be leaving as the federal government struggles to find funding for tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing from drug-related gang violence by crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.
The border crisis could lead to cuts of about $450,000 to refugee services in Alaska. Ferguson says the cuts, which start to take effect Aug. 15, would cripple medical, educational, and elderly support, as well as employment services for all new arrivals.
“In my view, you can’t take one crisis and solve it by taking away funds from another program, creating then two crises,” Ferguson said.
The cuts would mean a huge setback for a program Ferguson helped grow from a small group assisting Hmong refugees to a staff of 20, plus volunteers. Over time, she’s helped develop several programs, including a youth soccer team and a vegetable garden in Mountain View.
Bhaskar Kafle has been coming to the refugee garden every summer for four years. He wears a gray suit-jacket and slacks that are surprisingly clean given that he’s tilling potatoes.
Kafle takes a break to talk about his old farm in Bhutan. Those were the days before the Bhutanese government ejected him and more than 100,000 other ethnic Nepalis in the 1990s as part of its “one-nation-one-people” policy. Kafle says the garden here in Anchorage reminds him of the land he lost.
The Bhutanese, along with refugees from the former Soviet Union and Somalia are among the larger refugee populations in Alaska. Catholic Social Services meets new arrivals at the airport, finds apartments for them and provides basic furniture and household goods, like spatulas and knives.
“We’ve, you know, transformed into this program that can take 120 people a year from all over the globe so it’s been really quite an incredible transformation,” Ferguson said.
She is especially proud of the cultural orientation program, which won an award as a model for refugee programs in other states. Some of the refugees have lived in camps their whole lives and arrive never having used electricity. The program teaches them how to live independently in the U.S.: how to enroll kids in school, how to call 911, use the bus and get a job – and of course, what to do when encountering a moose.
“I watched people be really lost and I also watched the community wrap themselves around people, just as volunteers, with no program, and help them to end up being actually quite successful,” Ferguson said. “When we started the refugee program, it was a relief to see that people didn’t have to be lost.”
Ferguson, who already has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, will be heading to a master’s program in Israel to study peace and conflict management at the University of Haifa.
She says she wants to go from taking care of refugees to preventing the very conflicts that force people to become refugees in the first place.