Do refugees in a rural West Virginia town have what they need to be healthy?

Published on
November 9, 2023

It’s easy for refugee groups to be overlooked once they’re resettled in the U.S. In recent years, the conversation both nationwide and in West Virginia has focused on whether asylum seekers should enter in the first place, rather than what would help them lead healthy and fulfilling lives here.

In most places, nonprofits contracted by the U.S. Department of State provide three months of formal assistance to help people adapt to the country. Researchers have found that the support these resettlement agencies provide is crucial. But even so, refugees are still challenged by numerous aspects of American life — factors that can traumatize and harm nearly all aspects of their health. Some problems, like limited-access to interpreters, discourage refugees from seeking health care. Others, like being placed in substandard housing, have led to families’ lives being put at immediate risk

The State Department almost never places newcomers in West Virginia. Even so, in a rural, eastern part of the state, hundreds of refugees live and work in the town of Moorefield. But because they weren’t initially resettled in West Virginia, they don’t have access to the services a resettlement agency typically provides. Instead, their employer — a chicken processing plant, unofficially fills that role. 

At times, West Virginia has been criticized for not resettling more refugees in the state, especially as global humanitarian crises persist. But despite newcomers having lived in Hardy County for over a decade, there seem to be few conversations about whether the refugees currently in the state are able to address their health needs. Our reporting team thinks that in Moorefield, there is an opportunity to see what happens when people resettle to one of the state’s small, rural towns. How have their experiences in West Virginia been different than in North Carolina, where this particular group was originally resettled with agency support? Are the newcomers able to access the “safety and opportunity” that the Department of State says the country provides to them?

With support from the USC Center for Health Journalism’s Impact Fund for Reporting on Health Equity and Health Systems, my newsroom and I at the Mountain State Spotlight will examine whether Moorefield’s refugees have access to adequate housing, transportation and interpretation services, and examine whether a lack of access to any of these essentials results in health problems. We will also dig into the relationship between the chicken plant and its employees, and analyze whether the services a resettlement agency could provide have been replaced by other means or not.

To report the story, we’ll take multiple trips to the rural West Virginia town to hear from refugees and learn about their lives. We’ll ask local and national experts how we should think about a chicken plant recruiting former asylum seekers to Moorefield and whether the company’s recruitment is sufficiently focused on the wellbeing of newcomers. We’ll also search for data sources that help us spotlight migration patterns of refugees within the U.S.

While this project will be specific to West Virginia and Hardy County, we are confident that it can inform the federal resettlement process in other parts of the country. The State Department assigns where in the U.S. refugees are initially sent, but nothing keeps them from moving once they arrive. If refugees migrate elsewhere, as folks in Moorefield did, there’s often no group responsible for making sure newcomers’ basic needs are met. 

Although our most basic goal for the project is to accurately represent the experiences of a group that doesn’t often have the financial or political power to voice their concerns to a large audience, our reach goals are for the West Virginia and federal governments to consider policies centered around helping people they accept through the resettlement process further adjust. Through these strategies, we hope to report whether the U.S. Refugee Admissions program is, as it says, creating “the opportunity to start anew to pursue a life of safety and dignity without fear of violence or persecution.”