Alum Works to Help Refugees Find New Life in Wisconsin

White woman outside in an autumn, urban setting.

By Kathy Quirk
Photo by Erin Bloodgood

Rebekah Davis has met interesting people from all over the world, learning about their lives, perspectives and culture. It’s all part of her job helping refugees resettle in Wisconsin.

Davis, who earned her master’s degree from the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, is a program and policy analyst for the Bureau of Refugee Programs within the Wisconsin Department of Children and Family Services.

In that job, she works to help funnel and manage money from the federal government that supports agencies all over the state that work with and serve refugees.

Although she doesn’t have as much direct contact with refugees as she has had in the past, the most rewarding part of the job is the people, she says.

“I’ve become more patriotic because of my work with refugees. I appreciate my country more knowing that there are countries all over the world that are unsafe.”

Refugees different from immigrants

While the terms refugee and immigrant are often mistakenly interchanged, they are not the same. “The definition of a refugee is someone who cannot return home,” Davis says. “No matter what people say about our country – and we do have all kinds of issues that we need to work through – we are a great and free country. I’ve learned that from all the people I’ve worked with over the years.”

Her interest in working with people from all over world began when she joined the Peace Corps and went to Senegal. When she returned home, that international experience led her to apply for a job at an international resettlement agency.

Other than a break to return to school full-time, Davis has worked in the field for the past 10 years. At UWM, where she earned her master’s degree, she particularly remembers the support of her advisor, Dimitri Topitzes, professor in the School of Social Welfare when she started work on a doctorate.

Refugees from many countries in Wisconsin

Refugees have been coming to Wisconsin since the 1970s, when the state took in an influx of Hmong people, who had been displaced from their homes in Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

As a result, Wisconsin, along with California and Minnesota, is home to a substantial population of Hmong people. The Census Bureau estimates the Hmong population in Wisconsin as more than 58,000, accounting for nearly 1% of the state’s population of 5.9 million.

In more recent years, waves of refugees from Myanmar (also known as Burma) have fled that country as a result of the persecution of minority and religious groups by that country’s regime. Milwaukee and Madison, in particular, now have strong established populations of Rohingya and Karen. Milwaukee also has large populations of people from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Most recently, the U.S. government has given special status to people from Afghanistan. In 2022, Davis said, the state welcomed approximately 800 Afghans, compared to fewer than 100 in previous years.

Agencies help settle refugees

Local resettlement agencies she works with, such as Lutheran Social Services. Catholic Charities of Green Bay and the International Institute of Wisconsin, work with her office to help get large numbers of refugees resettled in short periods of time, says Davis. This work means helping them find housing, schools for their children and jobs, and helping them learn English.

Political issues are a challenge to any agency that works with families that are new to the U.S., but in general they don’t have an impact on refugee resettlement, Davis said. There have been changes because of budgets and conceptualization of the program, but in general, “What I love about this job is that it’s completely nonpartisan,” Davis said. “The real fundamental of the program is to be a lifesaving program for people who cannot go back home. We are a great country, and we have the capacity to help these people.”