Ken Primus spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, and his service took him all over the world, including to Iraq and Afghanistan. He worked in special operations and civilian affairs and that meant part of his job was going into villages, sharing tea and conversation, and trying to make connections.
In some ways, that’s still his job – even though he’s back home in the Tri-Cities.
Primus took on the role of director of the local branch of World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency. He’s led the Richland-based office through the uncertainty of Covid-19, a dip in refugee numbers and now a surge that’s led to an office expansion and significant growth in staff numbers.
And just like in his Army days, he aims to build connections and do good.
“I know this is where God wants me to be,” Primus said.
World Relief is a Christian organization – one of nine agencies around the country that works with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees who’ve fled their home countries because of war, genocide, natural disaster or similar trauma.
The current U.S. presidential administration determines the number of refugees accepted in the country each fiscal year, and the Biden administration increased the number to 125,000 in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, the highest it’s been in decades. During the Trump administration, the number was as low as 18,000.
That’s meant the local World Relief office has been increasingly busy.
Last fiscal year, the office had 204 refugee arrivals in the Tri-Cities; this year, 325 are expected. The office also helps “humanitarian parolees,” or people who arrive in the U.S. and seek asylum. The Richland office last year helped more than 700 people in that category who fled the war in Ukraine.
Primus said he’s not sure if the Tri-Cities will see any refugees from the Israel-Hamas war.
“It all depends on our government’s response,” he said, noting that, “our refugees generally come to us from U.N. refugee camps, where people can wait seven years or longer before being received by another country. In Afghanistan and Ukraine, the administration made special provisions for people fleeing those wars to be eligible for federal funding.”
He added that, “we are prepared to receive anyone seeking peace and security for their family, regardless of faith or nationality. Whether we will receive any refugees from the Israel-Hamas conflict, or from the Sudanese and Somali civil wars, is up to our elected officials.”
World Relief provides a variety of services, from greeting refugees at the airport upon arrival, to setting up apartments, helping navigate social services and assisting with employment.
As the office has ramped up its pace and added staff, it also physically expanded, taking over the entire second floor of its home at 2600 N. Columbia Center Blvd., Suite 206.
The office now has 4,201 square feet of space, up from 2,955 square feet.
Primus said the landlord handled the construction required to update and rearrange the second floor of the building that’s also home to Ted Brown Music among other businesses. The rent increased by about $25,000 annually as a result of the change.
The local World Relief has a budget of $4 million, with most coming from government funding and about 10% from donations. Primus said the office always is in need of donations and volunteers.
The work it does it meaningful and important, he said.
“We serve God by serving his people. If someone makes the difficult decision to flee their own country, we try to help make a home for them in the Tri-Cities,” he said. “They’re coming here because they just need a fresh start. They’re looking to make that start here in America.”
Primus is a Tri-Cities native who graduated from Pasco High School and then went on to Washington State University before joining the Army. He retired at the rank of colonel.
He came upon an advertisement for the World Relief director job and it seemed like the right position for him. Some of the refugees served by the local office – and some of the staff members who work there – are from places he spent time in during his military service.
“It’s a fit. God put me here,” Primus told the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business. “Whatever I did in the military was to prepare me for this.”
For Primus, working with World Relief has a direct connection to his Christian faith.
The agency’s mission comes straight from the Bible, although Primus notes that World Relief serves people of all faiths, has staff members of varying faiths and doesn’t evangelize.
“The phrases ‘stranger,’ ‘sojourner,’ ‘foreigner’ – everyone understands that the Bible urges us to support the widow and orphan, but those phrases are used more often when it comes to telling us to reach out and help. The story of the Good Samaritan is where we take our calling. We’re all God’s children and should treat each other with the same love he shows for us. That’s our motivation,” he said.
World Relief needs donations and volunteers, including for the Good Neighbor program it’s starting up in which community members provide friendship and support to newly arriving refugee families.
Go to: worldrelief.org/tricities.
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