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Wyoming debates refugee resettlement

Marketplace Contributor Sep 21, 2015
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President Obama has announced the U.S. will accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees. Right now it’s unclear where those refugees will go when they arrive, but we do know one place they won’t be heading: Wyoming. It’s the only state without a resettlement program to screen and sponsor refugees.

Wyoming does have residents who are former refugees, though, like Bertine Bahige, who came from the Congo. Bahige is a high school Math teacher who lives in Gillette, a coal mining town in the northeast part of the state. After a full day of teaching, Bahige coaches cross-country, tutors a homebound student, and then finally returns home to his family. His wife was born in Wyoming and they have two small kids. He says these twelve hour days are an effort to give back to the state.

“They gave me an opportunity to raise a family. And I work every day as hard as I can as an act of thankfulness. And that can be any other refugee,” Bahige said.

Bahige is an advocate for starting a refugee resettlement program in Wyoming. Once refugees arrive in the U.S., the programs provide a stipend, orientation, and English classes to help them settle. In 2013, Wyoming’s Republican Governor Matt Mead looked at starting a refugee resettlement program, but that didn’t go over well with everyone.

Republican state legislator Scott Clem, also from Gillette, opposes the idea. “We’re the least populated state in the Union. Just a small change in the demographics here could upset the Wyoming economy, the Wyoming culture,” Clem said.

He, along with other Republican legislators and citizen groups, doesn’t like the idea of spending money to bring foreigners to the state’s small communities. Wyoming’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average at around 4 percent, but people are still worried about jobs and government spending, especially with the recent downturn in the energy industry.

“As it is with our decreasing revenues, we have to be careful with what we can do. We have to take care of Wyoming’s own first,” said Clem.

Opposition stalled Governor Mead’s earlier efforts, but he’s looking into resettlement again this year, tapping the Wyoming Humanities Council to organize public discussions for people to talk about refugees and a possible resettlement program.

Shannon Smith, the council’s executive director, said the talks will start later this fall. Still, she says she isn’t sure where they will lead. “You know, I’m not saying one way or the other, because we may all look at it and say we just don’t have the capacity. But I think we have the heart,” said Smith.

Bahige, the Congolese Math teacher from Gillette, first landed in Maryland. He didn’t speak English and took a job as a fast-food worker. Then, he got a scholarship to study at the University of Wyoming. He pointed out Wyoming can’t stop refugees from moving to the state once they’re residents in the U.S.

“Refugees will make it to Wyoming. Either as first arrivals or second arrival. Somebody who, like me, was resettled somewhere else and made their way to Wyoming,” said Bahige. That will happen.”