Wyoming Debates Refugee Resettlement Program

Sep 25, 2015

Former Refugee Bertine Bahige met his wife Amanda at the University of Wyoming, and they are raising their children Gigi and Drake Gillette.
Credit Caroline Ballard

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 in the in the states, but we do know one place they won’t be heading: Wyoming. It’s the only state without a resettlement program. 

Wyoming does have residents who are former refugees. People like

Bertine Bahige, who came from the Congo. Today he lives in Gillette, a coal mining town in the Northeast part of the state, and he’s a high school Math teacher.

After a full day of teaching, Bahige coaches cross country, tutors a homebound student, and then finally returns to his family. His wife was born here and they have two small kids. He says these twelve hour days are an effort to give back to the state.

Former Refugee Bertine Bahige helps his students with a math problem. Bahige became a teacher after receiving a scholarship from the University of Wyoming, but the state itself is still without a refugee resettlement program.
Credit Caroline Ballard

“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 says.

Bahige has made a home for himself in Gillette, but he is still pretty unique in the community. His wife Amanda says she didn’t know much about refugees growing up.

“I mean grew up here in Gillette and so, even you know less diverse when I was growing up than it is now. I mean I didn’t have any exposure to any of that until meeting him,” she says.

That lack of diversity and exposure spurred Bahige to action. Now he’s an advocate for starting a refugee resettlement program in Wyoming. Resettlement programs help screen and sponsor refugees. Once refugees arrive in the U.S., the programs provide a stipend, orientation, and English classes to help them get settled.

In 2013, Wyoming’s Republican Governor Matt Mead looked at starting a refugee resettlement program. That did not go over well with everyone, especially with conservative legislators. Republican state legislator Scott Clem, also from Gillette, still doesn’t like 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 says.

He, along with other conservative lawmakers 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%. But with the recent downturn in the energy industry, Clem says people are still worried about jobs and government spending.

“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,” says Representative Clem.

: Former Refugee Bertine Bahige displays the well-wishes and photos of former students on the bulletin boards in his classroom in Gillette, Wyoming.
Credit Caroline Ballard

While opposition stalled the governor’s earlier efforts, he’s looking into resettlement again this year. He has tapped the Wyoming Humanities Council to put on public discussions, where people can talk about refugees and the facts concerning a resettlement program. Shannon Smith, the Council’s executive director, says one of the main goals of the campaign is to explain what a refugee is and what sets them apart from asylum seekers or immigrants.

“There are major differences between all these kinds of people moving around the planet and we need to help our state understand that. And help us decide whether we’re going to be the single state without any kind of plan to accept people” says Smith.

Bahige, the 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 points out Wyoming can’t stop refugees from moving to the state once they’re residents.

“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. That will happen,” says Bahige.

The Wyoming Humanity’s Council’s first discussion panels about refugees and what a resettlement program could look like in Wyoming will start later this fall. After that, it will be up to the governor and legislators to decide what to do next.