On any given week, Ben Demers can be found hauling furniture up a staircase, assembling beds and tables or shopping for sheets and other household items at the nearest big box store.
Demers and a colleague recently he set up a Dallas apartment that will house a family of Afghan refugees who are new arrivals to the U.S. More families are scheduled to arrive in the coming weeks.
“This month is crazy,” he said. “The next couple of weeks, we’ll have maybe two setups a day. I think this week we have five setups — so one a day.”
Demers is a resource coordinator for World Relief North Texas, one of several resettlement agencies charged with securing housing for refugees, helping them find jobs and ensuring children are enrolled in school.
After four decades in Fort Worth, the agency has opened an office in Dallas to meet the growing needs of the refugee community. This fiscal year, the agency expects to resettle a total of 450 refugees, about 80 of those individuals will be housed in Dallas.
Garrett Pearson, director of the North Texas office, said the agency has historically resettled most of its families in Fort Worth.
“But as the numbers have continued to increase, both with world crises such as what happened in Afghanistan almost a year and a half ago, and then what's going on in Ukraine, there has been a need to kind of push borders and push our operations just to be able to meet the rising need,” he said.
World Relief’s new office is located on the campus of the International Linguistics Center and Dallas International University in Southwest Dallas.
Pearson says his group is working with several apartment complexes in that area to house the families coming to North Texas. He’s also talked to other resettlement agencies about how best to coordinate when a new family arrives.
“There are a lot of communities, faith organizations, churches, businesses in South Dallas that want to support more. So we're helping empower them,” Pearson said. “And so the big picture is to build more structure here in South Dallas. Then we kind of look case by case. What is going to be best for this family? What's going to be best for the community?”
Pearson said being located on a college campus that teaches linguistics and learning about other cultures opens the door to work with faculty and students.
For example, the university has a master’s program in Human Migration, which covers topics like trauma and cultural adaptation.
Most of the recently arrived families are from Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. State refugee officials say Texas is expected to receive twice as many refugees this fiscal year versus last fiscal year.
“When I look at numbers that we received as a state last year, we resettled about 3,790 individuals and that would be refugees and special immigrant visa holders,” said Jeff Demers, state refugee coordinator for the Texas Office for Refugees. “And this year's projection is projected statewide to be 7,965.”
Jeff Demers is Ben Demers’ father.
Demers said last year’s arrival of Afghan evacuees highlighted the need for more resources. Texas received the largest number of Afghans through the program dubbed Operation Allies Welcome.
“I think across the state, in all the communities, we really saw the need to expand our presence,” Demers said. “The apartment complexes that we've traditionally used for resettlement just were full. We had to find new properties, new places for people to resettle.”
Demers said one of the biggest challenges that resettlement agencies face is staffing – finding people workers and keeping them.
The Trump administration severely cut the number of refugees allowed to come into the country. As a result, agencies were also affected. Some had to lay off staff or cut positions. That combined with the pandemic made it extra challenging for them.
Back at the Dallas apartment he’s setting up, Ben Demers said what he loves about the work is making families who’ve been through so much happy. On this night, he’ll only get to drop off their apartment key but other times he’s there when they walk into their new place.
“It’s always fun seeing them come into their new apartment and see what stuff they got,” he said.
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