Salem for Refugees is a nonprofit organization located in Salem, Oregon that helps provide support and resources for refugees in the area.
SALEM — Salem folks can hear a vibrant African girls’ choir, nibble falafel at a Syrian eatery, and send their kids to camp with youngsters from Afghanistan.
This growing diversity reflects the influence of an organization called Salem for Refugees, which has welcomed hundreds of “new neighbors” from around the world.
The thriving nonprofit organization traces its roots to the vision and leadership of Catholic Charities of Oregon. Salem for Refugees differs from that parent in many ways, but if you look closely, Catholic Charities’ DNA shines through.
Tania Wilson Moran welcomes tutors to a training session at Salem for Refugees. She is volunteer coordinator.
“People of faith and people of goodwill — Catholic Charities brought them together,” reflected Anya Holcomb, a founding partner of Salem for Refugees. “This has been a real strength of SFR as well. We want to bring together the whole community with a shared mission of welcoming our new neighbors.”
Refugees are people who were forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war or violence. Many have spent years in refugee camps, getting vetted and waiting their turn for a better life. When they finally arrive in Oregon, they have short-term support but long-term needs.
Until 2015, the Portland area took in most refugees for the state. Salem’s Jenny Barischoff helped find housing through her job at Catholic Charities in Portland. Then her boss issued a challenge: “You live in Salem? Why don’t you look into housing there?”
Jenny Barischoff poses with husband Erich Barischoff, her partner in the Ariana House nonprofit.
Barischoff could relate. She had immigrated to the United States at age 5 with no English. Memories of being the stranger had led her to a career aiding refugees.
Barischoff first shared the need through a panel discussion at Salem’s library. The event proved so inspirational that the nonprofit Salem Leadership Foundation hosted five lunches to mobilize support.
The resulting proposal called for more than a satellite of Catholic Charities, headquartered 50 miles away. It would rely on local volunteers and donors, medical providers, landlords, employers and educators.
Anya Holcomb and her husband Doug, newly returned from refugee work in Eastern Europe, were elected leaders. Salem Alliance Church put them on the payroll and contributed office space, vehicles and other support.
Anya Holcomb of Salem, at a volunteer event, picked up leadership of Salem for Refugees during the organization’s early years.
“It was Catholic Charities that had the initial vision, with Jenny Barischoff being the point person,” said Anya. “Otherwise, resettlement would never have come to Salem. It’s just amazing.”
Catholic Charities continued its close connection until 2021, when Salem for Refugees became an independent nonprofit and an official refugee resettlement agency. It now directly welcomes individuals and families chosen through U.S. government channels.
This fiscal year alone, SFR expects to resettle 250 individuals from Afghanistan, Syria, Central African Republic and many other lands. Next year, the number will likely swell to 330.
As with any extended family, the story continues to the future. Salem for Refugees has purchased a north downtown building for orientation classes and furniture donations. The long-term dream: building a campus with 120 units geared to refugees’ needs.
And this year SFR spun off its model of community involvement to a new generation: Corvallis for Refugees. By Oct. 1, the town 40 miles south of Salem will have welcomed 30 newcomers to yet another mid-valley town.