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Alumnus brings awareness of refugees’ plight to immigration battle

Cole Varga (’10, international relations) understands more than most the impact of the recent immigration restrictions on families looking for better opportunities in the United States. As the executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc., he has seen firsthand how refugee resettlement transforms people’s lives. 

Cole Varga, executive director, Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc.
Cole Varga, executive director, Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc.

Exodus is a 36-year-old Indianapolis-based non-profit refugee resettlement agency, and is one of about 300 in the United States. In 2016, Exodus welcomed 947 refugees from 17 countries, including Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Ukraine.

The recent executive orders on immigration have had a significant impact on Exodus’ work. The first order affected hundreds of refugees, including some Exodus clients. Varga described a family that had to change their plans several times as the executive order was challenged in federal court, despite having gone through a two-year vetting process.

“Having that back and forth was quite a swing in emotion for them,” he said, adding that the family eventually arrived in Indianapolis and have been settled in the area.

Exodus works with each refugee family to resettle them in central Indiana, and their services include anything from finding an apartment to arranging basic case management services like school, doctors, welfare and financial or English classes.

While all of those services are crucial, there’s another important role Exodus plays. “We’re there at the airport to welcome them. That’s one of the best parts of this job,” Varga said.

But these have been challenging times for Exodus.

The president’s second executive order called for a 120-day pause on refugee resettlement, along with other restrictions. Federal judges have blocked the order, but the outcome remains uncertain.

With the Trump administration’s efforts to lower the number of refugees allowed into the country to 50,000 (down from 110,000 under President Obama), resettlement agencies like Exodus have had to make significant budget cuts.

“That immediately does major damage to the infrastructure of this program across the country,” Varga said.

For Exodus, it means planning for a drastic, 40-percent reduction in the program, and cutting 15 of 43 positions. Roughly 90 percent of Exodus’ funding comes from the federal government, Varga said.

“Right now we’re addressing that by super fundraising as much as we can and bridge funding to get us through this rocky patch,” Varga said.

Despite the cutbacks facing Exodus, Varga continues to be a passionate advocate for refugees and the contributions they make to the community.

“Not only should we be doing this for the betterment of our community, making it more diverse, making it more vibrant, but for the betterment of the global humanity. Welcoming people is embedded in our values as the Hoosier state,” he said.

Varga recently was named one of the Indianapolis Business Journal’s “40 under 40” young professionals, making the list amid a record number of nominations for 2017. He said he was “surprised and incredibly honored. I really took it as an honor to the whole staff, because I really think it was about the work of Exodus rather than me.”

Varga has kept up his UIndy ties since graduating in 2010. He’s hired two alumni at Exodus and regularly has a student intern working at Exodus. One of his former mentors, Associate Professor Jyotika Saksena, is on the Board of Directors for Exodus.

“Cole has been doing a marvelous job handling this transition to a scaled-down operation while retaining its essential functions. In addition, he has maintained a high profile in the media,” said Saksena, associate professor of international relations and director of the Graduate Program in International Relations.

“What UIndy provided me with the international relations degree was a hunger for addressing these issues in our community,” Varga said.

Saksena added, “It makes us extremely proud that the Graduate Program in International Relations played an important part in Cole’s education and professional life. I am particularly proud of him because he started at Exodus Inc. as an intern in 2009 and seven years later he became the executive director of the agency.”

From day one, the work of Exodus made a lasting impression on Varga. The same day he began his internship, “we welcomed two families from China who had fled and seeing what they had gone through, it was really inspiring with what they had overcome – and still managed to smile at the end of the day.”

Learn more about Exodus’ work here.

Written by Sara Galer, Senior Communications Specialist, University of Indianapolis. Contact with your campus news.