2021 in Review

The 2021 Year in Review infographic represents arrival and service provision data from Federal Fiscal Year 2021, which covers October 1, 2020 – September 30, 2021.

2021 was an important year for Tennessee’s Refugee Resettlement Program. In the course of the year, we saw the ongoing effects of the coronavirus on case management and ability to access benefits, the preparation for increased arrival numbers while still experiencing delays and backlogs in arrivals due to Covid-19, and the brewing tension abroad in Afghanistan that would dominate refugee services in  Federal Fiscal Year 2022. This may seem like a bleak picture for resettlement, but the year was characterized by a bubbling excitement animated by the hope and joy of possibility. Constantly we are reminded by the refugees we serve of the value of resilience. Daily they demonstrate the strength that comes from continuing to push forward, with the boldness to dream bigger. Last year was a year of dreaming bigger for Tennessee’s Refugee Resettlement Program.

A Year of Possibility

On May 3, 2021, President Biden raised the nation’s annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 from 15,000. Despite this, the United States saw the lowest number of arrivals since the nation’s Refugee Resettlement Program was founded in 1980. This is due in large part to the backlog in processing and booking travel arrangements caused by COVID-19. However, the raised annual admissions ceiling marked an important turning point away from a continual decline of the nation’s ability to demonstrate welcome to the persecuted. Arrivals will not return to full capacity immediately, but in the meantime the Tennessee Office for Refugees is working hard to support capacity building at each of the resettlement agencies in the state, including increasing programming, pursuing additional funding opportunities, and supporting the onboarding of new staff.

In Federal Fiscal Year 2021, TOR was awarded a four-year grant for the Wilson-Fish TANF Coordination Program. The program helps refugees obtain the resources and life skills to become self-sufficient and achieve sustained social and economic wellbeing through coordination with the Tennessee state and county TANF offices. In addition to this new program, the first year of growth in the Refugee Youth Mentoring Program introduced a little over a year ago is helping refugee youth dream of educational and career goals that were previously out of reach.

The negative effects of Coronavirus on the ability to provide in-person services has opened the door to virtual case management. This will not be the norm for case management in the future, but it is an important practice to be able to provide services where access may otherwise be limited. More clients now have access to English Language Instruction and other services that are essential in their journey of self-sufficiency and long-term integration into their new communities.

Dreaming Big for the Year Ahead

Perhaps the most significant event in this decade of refugee resettlement in the United States is the vast undertaking of resettling thousands of Afghans forced to flee their homes in the fall and winter of 2021. The first months of Federal Fiscal Year 2022 (which runs from October 2022—September 2023) will be devoted to the unprecedented needs of resettling so many displaced individuals and families in a short period of time.

In addition to welcoming our Afghan Allies, the first quarter of Federal Fiscal Year 2022 has already seen a steady increase in arrivals through traditional resettlement pathways. The preparations in staff expansion and program development are already proving fruitful. We won’t stop there, though. In 2022, the Tennessee Office for Refugees is hiring AmeriCorps VISTA positions for the roles of Refugee Youth Mentoring Program Coordinators, Resource Development Coordinators, and English Language Instruction Coordinators. We are also partnering with community volunteers throughout the state as Tennesseans step up to become more involved in welcoming their new neighbors. 2021 was a year of possibility and dreaming big. As the exciting possibilities carry us into 2022, we anticipate a year of revitalization and expanding who is involved in welcoming refugees in their

The Far-Reaching Impacts of VISTA Service

Nathaniel Harrison is the Assistant Director at the Tennessee Office for Refugees. He has supported people with refugee status in many ways throughout his career. Recently, he reflected on his service as an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Refugee Youth Mentoring programs in Tennessee.

“Mentoring… is about developing a relationship with someone who cares about you, and having that person walk with you through thick and thin.”

Several months ago, I completed a year of AmeriCorps VISTA service with the Tennessee Office for Refugees. During my service I provided state-level oversight of Refugee Youth Mentoring programing. This included guiding VISTA members placed within refugee resettlement partner agencies as they developed and implemented programs matching refugee youth with members of their community to build skills focused on long-term integration.

When I started my VISTA service, I was the last member to join a six-person VISTA cohort. Early on, I engaged my more experienced colleagues to better understand their vision for the future of each agency’s refugee youth mentoring programs. One of my colleagues shared:

“Mentoring… is about developing a relationship with someone who cares about you, and having that person walk with you through thick and thin. While our mentors can also help with navigating college applications, identifying and setting goals, updating resumes and more, at the end of the day a mentor is someone who encourages you, advocates for you, and cares about you.”

Their words highlight the impact that youth mentoring programs can have on youth and how the power of a personal connection can support individuals though challenges. As I reflect on this comment, I can also relate it to the experience I shared navigating challenges with my VISTA cohort. During our service, each of us were challenged at some time as we developed programming. We struggled to belong as we worked remotely and coped with the precarity of a pandemic world. Throughout our service we supported each other while navigating personal and professional challenges, and we dedicated ourselves to a program that we envisioned could make a difference in people’s lives. Our collective experience navigating challenges strengthened our bond as a cohort just as mentees and mentors do through a mentoring match.

VISTA service brought a group of people in different stages of their lives together, and over time, one by one, our one-year service terms ended. Many of the cohort transitioned from VISTA members to full-time positions with the agencies where they served. Others went on to different challenges in graduate school or in other career opportunities. Over a year later, I still connect with my colleagues from that first VISTA cohort. It’s not as often as I would like, but when we do connect, we still encourage, advocate, and care for each other as we encounter and overcome challenges in our lives – just as mentors and mentees do in the programs we spent our service creating.

In the first year of the program, the Refugee Youth Mentoring Program has grown across the state, building a community of VISTA members, volunteer mentors, and refugee youth.

Help Our Afghan Allies in Tennessee

Thousands of families and individuals have been evacuated from Afghanistan in the past weeks as the U.S. ends its military mission there. Many Afghan civilians are especially at risk because they assisted the U.S. military or a U.S. based organization in Afghanistan. These evacuees are fleeing with little to no time to prepare, and it will take the work of entire communities to help them find safety and stability once again. There are several ways you can be involved in these efforts here in Tennessee. The State Department has not yet informed Tennessee officials of the exact number of evacuees that will come to our state or when they might begin arriving, but current information suggests that only a few hundred will be assigned to Tennessee.

Financial support

Monetary donations will help Afghans transition from flight to stability. Your donations will provide emergency relief. If you do not live in an area where you can volunteer or provided services in person, this is a great way to help! 

In-kind gifts

Evacuees from Afghanistan will be arriving in the U.S. with few, if any, worldly goods. Gifts-in-kind can include household necessities, home furnishings, bedding, toiletries, clothing, non-perishable food, and so much more.


Volunteer to welcome Afghans to their new home, provide transportation services, help set up apartments, host a family or individual, and more. Your time and hospitality can make a huge difference in helping those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan to feel safe and welcome as they work towards stability.

Pro-bono services

Your skills and expertise are needed! Can you offer interpretation, legal, or healthcare services? Coordinate with an agency near you.


Refugee Council USA and World Relief have prepared messages for you to take action by contacting your elected officials. These prepared forms include calls to expedite life-saving protections for Afghans, to restore the national refugee resettlement program, to end gender-based violence that women in conflict settings are especially susceptible to, and to advocate for asylum seekers and separated families. Find guidance in how to contact your elected officials today at https://worldrelief.org/advocate/#afghans and https://rcusa.org/afghanistan/individual-advocacy/.

Contact our partners to help our Afghan allies

Connecting with our resettlement partners is the most direct way you can help our Afghan allies in Tennessee. Contact forms to respond to the needs of evacuated Afghans are available at each resettlement organization in Tennessee. Connect with an agency near you today.

Chattanooga and Knoxville

Bridge Refugee Services — use the buttons at the top right to volunteer or donate


Nashville International Center for Empowerment

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville


World Relief Memphis

A New Era for Refugee Resettlement

A day of firsts: five key takeaways from Biden's historic inauguration | Biden  inauguration | The Guardian
Joe Biden fist-bumps Kamala Harris after she took the oath of office.
Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images 

As America welcomes its new president with the inauguration of President Joe Biden earlier this year, we want to take a moment to discuss what a new presidential administration means for refugee resettlement.  

The Biden administration and refugee resettlement 

The past four years have seen resettlement in Tennessee reduced to a mere fraction of what it previously was. The ceiling set each year to determine how many refugees would be granted resettlement has been significantly lower than during every previous administration. 

The Biden administration has already indicated that it will seek to restore the status of the United States as a global humanitarian leader by defending the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. On a statement issued on World Refugee Day in 2020, Biden announced his intent to increase the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 to be “commensurate with our responsibility, our values, and the unprecedented global need.” This cap of 125,000 refugees is expected to be set in 2022. Currently, President Biden’s proposal to revise the 2021 cap of 15,000 to 62,500 arrivals is awaiting review from Congress.  

On February 4, Biden signed the Executive Order on Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration, which sets forth guidelines for rebuilding our nation’s decimated refugee resettlement program. The Order calls for increased efficacy, integrity, security, and transparency from the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP); calls for a plan to address processing backlogs and pursue security vetting processes that are effective, fair, and efficient; and formally revokes executive actions that defied the spirit of the 1980 Refugee Act with restrictions that undermined the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. 

This higher ceiling for refugee resettlement and the Executive Order reflects the United States’ historical commitment to offer refuge to individuals fleeing persecution and American values of opportunity, dignity, liberty, and welcoming. 

A year of building  

This next year will be a year of rebuilding in Tennessee. We will not likely see an immediate influx of refugees in Tennessee as a result of Biden’s actions. The process for vetting refugees can take up to 18 months, and travel has been slowed by safety procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can prepare now, however, for eventual increases in arrivals by building relationships and resettlement capacity. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies have not only harmed the economic, social, and national security benefits of a once robust refugee resettlement program. It has also reduced the capacity of resettlement agencies to help refugees find jobs, navigate healthcare and school systems, and otherwise integrate into their new communities. 

One important measure for a successful refugee resettlement program is the strength of its community relationships. Building capacity for resettlement cannot happen without the community resources, businesses, and residents that create stronger opportunities for integration. Relationships with employers will bolster Tennessee’s economy. Relationships with local and state government officials will ensure that all Tennesseans are lifted up by values of welcoming and home. Relationships with community members like you make Tennessee a state of neighbors. Reach out to a resettlement agency near you to attend quarterly Community Consultations where you can learn more about resettlement and capacity building in your area. 

Black History Month

Black History Month is a time for us to celebrate the achievements and history of those of African heritage. It is a time for us to honor their contributions to the vibrant tapestry of American art, knowledge, culture, and society. It is a time for us to remember the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. As we celebrate, honor, and remember, we must acknowledge the diversity of backgrounds of blackness in America – from those born in American to refugees and immigrants who have found home in America.  

This year’s theme for Black History Month is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. The theme invites us to reflect on both nuclear families and the broader Black community. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History says of the Black family that “Not only are individual black families diasporic, but Africa and the diaspora itself have been long portrayed as the black family at large.”  

Reflections on the representation, identity, and diversity of the Black family are incomplete without acknowledging the history of forced displacement from their homes and the separation of families. The Africa diaspora has roots in the Atlantic slave trade, which displaced individuals, families, and entire communities. This theme is particularly relevant to immigrants and refugees, many for whom this history is a lived and present reality. 

The tragedy of African families being torn apart is not just a matter for the history books. Today, families in Africa are separated as they flee violence, torture, and genocide. We play a part in the health, safety, and future of Black families by examining national immigration laws and the conditions of refugee resettlement to ensure there are no unnecessary barriers to reuniting families. Celebrating Black History means striving for future in which families are never again torn apart. 

Black History Month is about more than celebrating, honoring, and remembering. It is a time to ask ourselves how far we still have to go until every family is reunited and has the opportunity to thrive in safety and freedom.  

Tennessee Welcomes Refugees

The number of refugees who will be admitted into the United States in Fiscal Year 2020 is lower than it has ever been. The Presidential Determination sets this fiscal year’s annual ceiling for refugee arrivals at only 18,000, a drastic decrease in an already downward trend in the past four years.

An Executive Order published the same day as the Presidential Determination has the power to further inhibit refugee programs’ ability to assist refugees attain self-sufficiency. The Executive Order requires state and local authorities to submit their agreement to accept the initial placement of refugees. Traditionally, refugees who are admitted into the United States are placed with a local resettlement agency which assists them to quickly attain self-sufficiency and become contributing members of their community. This year, however, if states do not take steps to affirm their humanitarian commitments and desire to help new Americans become contributing community members, refugees will be assumed unwelcome and turned away. The Tennessee Refugee Program is administered by Catholic Charities through its Tennessee Office for Refugees, so the task of resettlement does not rest upon the state.Refugee and SIV Arrivals in U.S. and Annual Ceilings

What is the Tennessee Office for Refugees doing? 

Since the issuance of the Presidential Determination and Executive Order, the Tennessee Office for Refugees has reached out to Governor Lee to answer any questions he may have about refugee resettlement in Tennessee. We are also working with each resettlement agency to communicate with their local authorities and answer questions, provide data, and educate them about how refugees contribute to their new communities. Even in this time of uncertainty, resettlement agencies continue to serve refugees, community members continue to seek ways to support their local resettlement agencies, and refugees continue to flourish in the country they now call home.

What can you do?

  1. If you support refugee resettlement in Tennessee, it is important to let Governor Lee know! Call, write, or tweet to make your voice heard. Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition provides a helpful form letter.
  2. Contact your local elected officials to let them know their constituents support refugee resettlement. 

Chattanooga City Mayor, Andy Berke
(423) 643-7800

Hamilton County Mayor, Jim Coppinger
(423) 209-6100
Email: http://www.hamiltontn.gov/Mayor/form.aspx

Knoxville City Mayor, Madeline Rogero
(865) 215-2040

Knox County Mayor, Glenn Jacobs
(865) 215-2005
Email: https://knoxcounty.org/email/email_new.php?email_name=county.mayor
Memphis City Mayor, Jim Strickland
(901) 636-6000
Shelby County Mayor, Lee Harris
(901) 222-2000
Nashville Metro Mayor, John Cooper
(615) 862-6000

  1. Reach out to your local resettlement agency to volunteer or provide other support. There are five resettlement agencies in Tennessee:

Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc.
(615) 259-3567

Nashville International Center for Empowerment
(615) 315-9681

Bridge Refugee Services
(423) 954-1911
Bridge Refugee Services
(865) 540-1311

World Relief
(901) 341-0220

  1. The GRACE Act is a proposed bill that will increase the annual refugee admissions floor to 95,000, the average refugee admissions goal set by previous presidents. Call Representative Cohen & Senator Blackburn to let them know that Tennesseans stand behind the GRACE Act.
  2. Share these actions with others!

Program Highlight: CCTN’s Hospitality Training

Pictured: Ivan Monterroza, Director of Housekeeping at Hutton Hotel and Brenda Jennifer Aronda Gurrvora, training participant

There are many reasons for individuals to seek employment in the hospitality industry, highest of which are job availability and advancement opportunity. Tourism generates 176,500 jobs for Tennesseans and produces $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue according to the TN Department of Tourist Development. There are roughly 357 hotels in the metropolitan Nashville area, and 117 new hotels in production, as reported by a 2018 Tennessean article. The jobs are available and employers are seeking qualified employees as is illustrated with their involvement in the Hospitality Training Program.

Ivan Monterroza, Director of Housekeeping at Hutton Hotel, stated it takes $3,300-$3,500 to bring on a new employee into the hospitality workforce and there is approximately a 26% turnover in the industry. That is an incredible expense that can be reduced by investing with non-profits and other hotel partners in training. Thanks to the training that Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville (CCTN) is providing at no cost, employers can invest a day’s time leading a training session and result in someone ready to commit to a hospitality position who needs less on-boarding time and effort.

CCTN leads the Hospitality Training Program for newly arrived refugees and community members who have an interest in the hospitality industry. The Hospitality Training Program is done in partnership with 11 hotels in the Nashville area, the Refugee and Immigrant Services Department of CCTN, and McGruder Family Resource Center. Through the partnership of these entities, volunteer time, and donated space CCTN is able to provide well trained staff for the hospitality workforce, reducing the expense on employers in employee turnover, and preparing individuals for their chosen industry.

Pictured: The Hospitality Training Room at McGruder Family Resource Center

The Hospitality Training Program is a five day experience – starting with classroom information on personal grooming, harassment rules, and safety training; physical training on housekeeping in a staged hotel room, shadowing a housekeeper in a partner hotel; and ending with a test and a meeting about placement in a partner hotel. Each training day is led by a different hotel partner (2-3 partners a week). The training takes place once a month and is limited to 10 participants each round to allot for quality training for each participant. Participants come to the training through CCTN’s Refugee Employment Department and referrals from community partners: Loaves and Fishes, courts, and community. Registration is on a rolling basis. CCTN provides transportation or bus passes to the refugee clients to ensure they have access to the training. The training is provided with interpretation when necessary.

This training is an opportunity for the hotel partners not only to prepare their workforce, but also to recruit willing and capable employees. This training gives the participants the tools and the agency to decide their work environment. The participants in the Hospitality Training are not bound to housekeeping, if after the week-long training they decide not to go into the hospitality industry, Catholic Charities helps to evaluate and place them in a different job. “If not housekeeping, we try to push something else. Sometimes they may choose something at Tyson. That’s fine; we saved our partners $3,500.” Anthony Agosti commented.


How did the Hospitality Training Program start?

In 2016 Teresa Najar, then at Sheraton, noted that refugee clients were quitting or taking a long time getting trained and communicated her concerns with Anthony Agosti of Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville (CCTN). In November of that year CCTN started the Hospitality Training Program with Sheraton. It was a three day training at that time, consisting of a presentation day, job-shadowing, and testing. Sheraton was the only partner at that time. CCTN had an interest in promoting the hospitality work force due to the many options available for limited English speakers. For example, in the production industry an employee may be employed at the hourly rate ceiling and have limited opportunity for growth. However, in hospitality if you are a good worker you will be promoted, even if you don’t speak English remarked Anthony Agosti.

After a few months the trainers decided to incorporate speed into the training as many hotels offer incentives for prompt task accomplishment. Another major development occurred when Alisha Haddock of the McGruder Family Resource Center offered an open room for use. Anthony stated that it took a while to acquire the furniture for the room. They were able to use the Tennessee Office for Refugees Targeted assistance Grant funding to purchase the furniture from a liquidator who had sets from Opryland Hotel in the summer of 2017. The project leads, Anthony Agosti and Alisha Haddock, then approached a variety hotel partners to be training instructors. They knew the growing tourism industry in Tennessee needed a workforce, and they just had to connect their training participants to employers.


What does the future look like for CCTN’s Hospitality Training Program?

The team is adding a certification to the training from American Lodging Hotel Education Institute. The certification is something employers will know and recognize. Anthony also commented that he sees the future of the hospitality training moving into the culinary field with the addition of culinary arts training.

How Do Agencies Help Refugees Find Jobs, and Other Important Questions…

The main priority of the Refugee Resettlement Program in the United States (other countries have different priorities) is self-sufficiency as soon as possible. All the stakeholders in this process recognize that there are many important factors to self-sufficiency including stable housing, English language training, community integration, and not least employment.

So, let’s take a few moments to talk about refugees and jobs.

  1. Agency employment staff members develop relationships with employers and with clients.

By getting to know their clients, their work histories, how much their monthly expenses are, where they live and what their transportation options are, employment staff members are able to connect each client with the best possible job.

The relationship with the employer is as important as the relationship with the client. Developing relationships with employers allows employment staff members to better understand the jobs available. This means workers will have more options as well as more realistic expectations. Those relationships also make it possible for the employer to go back to the employment staff if a placement doesn’t work out. The key to these relationships, according to one of our partners, is open communication.

  1. Agency employment staff members provide job training.

Job training usually includes an orientation to workplace expectations in the United States. Some clients have extensive work history but in a very different culture. Other clients may have no formal work experience, having been vendors or farmers in a rural system of entrepreneurship. These trainings ultimately lead to increased job retention.

Job training may provide an introduction to how to complete an application. This is usually done in the first weeks upon arrival as clients don’t yet have the necessary documents to work but have all the desire. Learning how to translate their life experiences into work histories and gaining the English skills needed to complete a job application will help clients get better jobs. Better jobs mean earlier self-sufficiency.

  1. Refugees are eager to get to work.

We often hear endearing stories of clients calling resettlement agency supervisors to complain that they haven’t been placed in jobs yet. In most of these stories, the supervisor looks into it and finds out the client has only been in the US for a few days and doesn’t yet have all the paperwork necessary to work. We also hear about refugee elders who are entitled to social security benefits, but would rather be working.

Those anecdotes are evidence of refugees’ drive to support themselves and their families. One employment specialist explained that refugees are eager to work because, “The ability to provide for one’s family and self is incredibly fulfilling and restores a sort of normalcy that is so often missing when someone arrives in a new place.”

  1. Refugees aren’t taking jobs away from anyone else.

Many of the jobs that our clients start out at are relatively low wage but very physically demanding. They may be processing vegetables or meat in a very cold environment on their feet for eight to ten hours a day. These same employers place billboards on the interstate hoping anyone will apply. The employment specialist at World Relief Memphis, Emily, explains that, “Based on the sole fact that they have fled persecution, refugees already show they are resilient and hard working.” For them, this isn’t an interim job, it’s a path to self-sufficiency with benefits and opportunities for growth.

We’ll leave you with an example:

Alina at sewing employerAlina was resettled from Ukraine through one of our partners in 2017. She got to work as quickly as possible and received very positive feedback from her employer, a small sewing company. Here are some of the words and phrases her employer used to describe her: Employer's description of Alina

Single Mom to Self-Sufficient

Here at TOR, we like to do fun stuff for our partners once in a while. So, we decided to go on an Appreciation Tour. Our stop at Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga was a pleasant opportunity for TOR staff who do not have the privilege of working outside our four walls to meet partner staff members. It was also a delightful chance for all of us to celebrate the victories of the last year. We were all especially moved by one simple yet powerful story.

Before being resettled to the US, Noora (pseudonym) and her infant daughter had been living in a refugee camp, where there were no jobs available. Her husband had stayed behind in Iraq, despite the danger, in order to eke out a modest living to send to Noora and baby girl.

Noora and her daughter were resettled in Chattanooga in early 2016. Bridge resettlement staff took notice of the fact Noora spoke English very well. At one time, Iraq had been a place in which education was attainable and Noora had studied English. Bridge staff knew that Noora would have more employment options because of this one skill.

Bridge staff helped Noora enroll in some basic services to ensure that they would have short-term access to food, child care, and employment services while they got back on their feet. Before long, Noora was utilizing the services of an employment agency which helped her obtain clothes appropriate for a professional work environment.

Each of the challenges Noora faced was met with determination and optimism. Noora soon found work at a cell phone store within walking distance to her apartment and child care. Her customers are other immigrants and refugees who live, as she does, nearby. She loves helping people connect with each other, getting to know her community, and supporting her family.

Noora was a young woman when she left Iraq. She was a wife and mom. She had never been employed. Now she thrives on the independence that workforce participation offers. She hopes that her husband will be able to join her in the next year.

Noora is an inspiring example of how refugees, with some local support, can become vital members of the community.

Refugees and Security

When we present information about refugee resettlement in Tennessee, we get a lot of security questions. We remind people of two things: The vetting process is detailed and thorough; and, the role of our office begins when refugees arrive in Tennessee.

A quick word about point two: We get phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages from displaced people or their loved ones asking for help. They all get the same unsatisfying response. We do not get to choose who comes to Tennessee. We always wish we could send help to the voice on the other end of the message, but that is just not how the system works.

So, what about the security vetting of refugees? There are some great resources explaining the security process. Here are some we recommend.

Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals allowed into the United States. There will always be risk when we allow anyone through our borders for any reason. However, those of us who work daily with and for refugees know that the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to welcoming the stranger – those benefits are extended not only to the families who make the US their home, but also to the communities in which they thrive. We ask that you join us by getting to know these newcomers.