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Refugee resettlement considered in county

Executive Director of Bridge Refugee Services Drocella Mugorewera speaks to commissioners on Monday. (Photo by Marina Waters)

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

Drocella Mugorewera of Bridge Refugee Services drove from Knoxville to meet with county officials on Monday, Feb. 24. But the folks she was there to talk about have come from much farther away. 

Mugorewera is the executive director of Bridge Refugee Services in Knoxville, and is a former refugee. She came to the county committee meeting to discuss and answer questions regarding refugee resettlement within Tennessee and Washington County.

Bridge Refugee Services is a nonprofit agency designed to provide protection and assistance to refugees. Mugorewera said that includes helping them do things such as enroll in school, find employment and become members of their local community.

“Every refugee who is coming is ready to work,” she said to county officials on Monday. “They have been pre-screened. Since this is a humanitarian program, they are given benefits, but the goal is to help them be self-sufficient as soon as possible. On average, every employee within four to six months is employable. We are very thankful that America did this life-saving program.”

On Dec. 18, Gov. Bill Lee announced that Tennessee will continue to accept refugees after President Donald Trump’s September executive order allowing local and state governments to decide whether or not to accept refugee resettlement within its communities.

At the county’s Health Education and Welfare Committee meeting on Feb. 6, Republican State Executive Committeewoman for District 3 Anita Hodges Taylor requested the committee send a resolution to the commission saying Washington County is a “non contesting county” to refugee resettlement. 

“I think we need to think about our Tennessee residents first,” Taylor said at the HEW committee meeting.

At the Feb. 6 meeting, the committee opted to table the discussion until they could receive more information. And at Monday’s meeting, a motion to send the discussion to the HEW Committee passed in a 4-1 vote. Commissioners Danny Edens, Steve Light, Greg Matherly and Suzy Williams voted in favor. Commissioner Jodi Jones voted in opposition.

Mugorewera said 2% of refugees coming to America are coming to Tennessee. Washington County currently has 15 refugees and four of those refugees were added since 2012. She also said when refugees come to Tennessee, they come to either Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville or Memphis. The only time they come to Washington County, she said, is when they have family here or a person who has agreed to serve as their sponsor.

Jones said she felt that considering a resolution to opt out of the state’s plan for refugee resettlement was not the “message” that should be sent to Gov. Lee.

“I think we should really ask ourselves if Washington County should send that message to Gov. Lee,” Jones said. “He wants to hear what we think about things. I don’t really want him to hear our story being that we don’t like the decision he made and that we don’t want outsiders. If we’re going to communicate with him, I want our message to be about our story of economic development, about growing this place, all the work we’ve done to thrive here and make it beautiful and prosperous.

“We don’t have a lot of chips to spend. We can’t send him a message every day. If we keep sending messages, they start to lose their value. Do we want to spend our message value on that message? I think no.”

Matherly added he felt learning more about the topic would be good for the commission and might answer the questions he said he’s received about refugee resettlement.

“I feel like the more information we have,” Matherly said, “the better we can serve our constituents.”

The next HEW Committee meeting will be held on Thursday, March 5, at 1 p.m. in the Historic Courthouse in Jonesborough. To see the full calendar of county meetings, go to http://www.washingtoncountytn.org/events.