Bureau of Refugee Services
History of the Bureau

The fall of Saigon in April 1975 was a critical turning point in the Vietnam War.  Many Americans can still remember the helicopter evacuation of U.S. personnel form the rooftop of a Saigon building and the subsequent withdrawal of the remaining U.S. personnel from Vietnam.  The fall of Saigon made the situation in Laos very volatile.  Less than 2 weeks after the fall of Saigon, 1,228 Tai Dam crossed from Laos into Thailand seeking asylum.  A request for asylum for the entire group was sent to Canada, France and the United States.  Many of these Tai Dam had fled to Laos in the 1950s after North Vietnam was taken over by a communist government.  Those unable to flee were deprived of their possessions, separated from loved ones and scattered throughout the country in re-education camps.

 

Arthur Crisfield, a former U.S. government employee n Laos who had worked with the Tai Dam, wrote 30 U.S. governors hoping to find answers to the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.  He pleaded that the salvation of Tai Dam families, culture and traditions rested in their hands.  Iowa Governor Robert Ray responded to Crisfield's letter and to a personal request from President Gerald Ford to offer resettlement ot refugees from Southeast Asia.  In July 1975 in a meeting with Colleen Shearer, director of Iowa's Employment Security Commission (IESC, currently known as Iowa Workforce Development), Governor Ray established the Governor's Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement.  Shearer took on the dual role of director of the task force and the ISEC.  In this meeting, the Governor emphasized that the success of the program would hinge on the fact that available resources would be channeled through the employment service rather than the welfare agency and that a philosophy of jobs over welfare would be promoted.

 

In August 1975, the Governor's Task Force was staffed by three existing state employees and by hiring two additional staff persons.  In September, the American Embassy granted refugee status for the Tai Dam and the Governor accepted responsibility for resettling 1,200 Tai Dam by signing a two year contract with the U.S. Department of State.  Sponsors of the Tai Dam were recruited through a media blitz and employers were canvassed for possible job openings.  In October, the first group of 300 Tai Dam arrived in California from Thailand.  On November 17, 1975 the first three plane loads of these new Iowans arrived in Des Moines.

 

In June 1976, the Governor's Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement was expanded to serve all refugees in Iowa.  The program was still expected to phase out in September 1977 when the two year contact with the Department of State expired.  In June 1977, services were phased down and the Task Force office was only open in the afternoons, Monday through Friday.

 

A Congressional inquiry was initiated in July 1977 regarding the horrors of Cambodia.  In September of that year, The Governor's Task Force was reorganized and renamed the Iowa Refugee Service Center (IRSC), with Colleen Shearer being named director.  Late in the year, tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees fled to Thailand to escape the hunger, disease and mass deaths resulting from Pol Pot's "Purification Campaign."

 

In March 1978, President Carter signed "The Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program Appropriation Bill" extending the program from October 1, 1977 to September 30, 1981.

 

In January 1979 CBS aired a documentary entitled, "The Boat People."  The documentary depicted the plight of refugees in overcrowded camps in Malaysia.  Governor Ray was deeply moved by the program and drafted a letter to President Carter pledging Iowa’s commitment to receive 1,500 more refugees during the next year.  Public opinion, however, was not always totally supportive of the refugee program.  In September 1979, a Des Moines Register poll showed 51% of respondents were against resettling refugees in Iowa.  Governor Ray never wavered from his commitment to the program because he felt it was the right thing to do.

 

In April of 1979, the Iowa Joint Voluntary Agencies (IJVA) was created.  The purpose of the group is to allow agencies to share information on refugee resettlement and to coordinate services and projects.  The IJVA still exists today.

 

Governor Ray announced the formation of the Iowa SHARES (Iowa Sends Help To Aid Refugees and End Starvation) in November 1979.  The campaign ran from Thanksgiving to Christmas that year and raised over $540,000 for relief activities.  Money was used to purchase food, medicine and other relief goods in Cambodia.  Money was also used to build an orphanage and rebuild another and to help support various UNICEF relief activities on the Thai-Cambodian border.

 

In May 1983, the Iowa Refugee Service Center expanded job assistance services with the addition of six VISTA volunteers and six new staff persons.  Individuals were placed in Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Grinnell, Marshalltown, Mason City, Ames, Clinton, Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Ottumwa and Waterloo.

 

In 1984, Marvin Weidner became Director of the Iowa Refugee Service Center.

 

As part of Governor Brandstad's state government reorganization, the IRSC became part of the Iowa Department of Human Services and was officially named the Bureau of Refugee Programs.  Marvin Weidner, was named Bureau Chief.

 

In February 1987, the Bureau began resettling refugees from Eastern Europe as well.  During 1987, dozens of refugee families from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary resettled in Iowa.

 

The Bureau of Refugee Programs agreed to resettle a small number of Amerasians and their families in August 1988.  Des Moines, Sioux City and Davenport were designated as cluster sites.

 

In March 1989, Wayne Johnson was promoted from Deputy Bureau Chief to Bureau Chief.  The Bureau was renamed the Bureau of Refugee Services.

 

The Bureau was approved by the Department of State as a Bosnian resettlement site in 1993.  Des Moines was selected s a cluster site.  In February, the first three families wre resettled in Iowa by the Bureau.

 

The Great Flood of '93 cost hundreds of refugees their jobs, businesses and homes.  The Bureau responded by providing interpretive services to numerous governmental and community based organizations serving flood victims.

 

In June of 1995, the Bureau began providing services to Sudanese refugees who had resettled or migrated to Iowa.  In the late 90's Iowa had one of the largest populations of Sudanese refugees in the US.  In 2000, the Bureau began resettling a few Sudanese refugees and by 2004 refugees from Africa represented the majority of refugees being resettled by the Bureau.

 

As part of the implementation of the US Welfare Reform in Iowa, the Bureau was designated as the Promise Jobs service provider for refugees in Iowa. 

 

One of the casualties of 9/11/01 was the national refugee resettlement program.  There was a cessation of all overseas processing of refugees and arrivals into the US and in FFY 03 the Bureau only resettled 71 refugees.

 

In April 2003, the Bureau opened the Assessment, Training and Placement Center.  The Center represented a major shift in how the Bureau provides employment services creating a work unit that focuses only on employment.  The Center helps refugees prepare for, obtain and keep their first jobs in the US as well as helping refugees advance in their careers.  The Center offers a wide variety of programs and services to help refugees be successful in the workplace.

 

In September 2005, the Bureau closed its Davenport office leaving only its main office in Des Moines in operation.  In FY 2007 and FY 2008 100% of the refugees resettled by the Bureau were placed in the Des Moines metropolitan area.

 

2006 marked be beginning of the resettlement of Burmese refugees by the Bureau and by 2007 they became the largest group of refugees being resettled by the Burerau.

 

In January 2007, Wayne Johnson retired and John Wilken was promoted from Deputy Bureau Chief to Bureau Chief.

 

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