Below is a timeline of refugee resettlement in San Diego. This is not a comprehensive overview; it is a selection of the major world events, U.S. laws and local actions that have impacted San Diego’s rich history as a place of refuge for displaced people everywhere. 

1940's - Present



The Federal Refugee Act of 1980 reinforces relations between resettlement agencies and the federal US government. Southern California begins receiving about 35% of all SouthEast Asian refugees until at least 1994.

Approximately 12,001 refugees resettle in San Diego in the fiscal years of the 1980’s coming from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Iraq.

Iran-Iraq war

The Iran-Iraq war begins.



Ethiopian-Somali Border War

The first Ethiopian/Somali border conflict occurs.

Multicultural Community Relations Office


This office is developed by the San Diego Police Department to engage and build trust with the various refugee communities in the city, through non-enforcement interactions with the department. It creates youth programs such as the Southeast Asian Youth Program and an East African Youth Program to service refugee youth, educating them on PTSD, gang and drug prevention.


Police Athletics League

This league is developed to allow officers from SDPD and the County Probation Departments to work with civilian personnel and volunteers to provide leadership and mentoring critical in promoting youth safety, positive life choices, and academic success. It later merges with Sports Training Academics Recreation (STAR).

Lautenberg Amendment


This amendment is created to help Jewish refugees leave the former Soviet Union, but now applies to all people fleeing religious persecution. 

Alliance for African Assistance


This organization is established to provide low-cost immigration and citizenship services to refugees, asylees, and the general public. It specializes in family reunification, citizenship, and other miscellaneous immigration services.



The City Heights neighborhood becomes the preferred destination for resettlement due to the existing social organizations in the area serving refugee groups and the affordability of housing. Refugees from Somalia, ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, and Kurds from Iraq resettle in City Heights.

The Immigration Act of 1990 increases the annual acceptance of refugees in the U.S. from 490,000 to 700,000.


The Crawford Community Connection

This new arrivals support program helps students and families at Crawford High School to access resources (ex: college scholarships, Prom Dive, etc.)

Somali Civil War

The Somali Civil War begins. An estimated 800,000 Somalis are refugees in neighboring countries, and 2 million are internally displaced.



Casa Cornelia Law Center

The Center is established to provide legal services to the immigrant community along the Mexican-American border.

Ethiopian/Eritrean border conflict

East Africans flee the border wars in Ethiopia and Eritrea and many are resettled in City Heights, San Diego. An estimated 650,000 civilians were displaced.




Between 2002-2010, almost 9,000 refugees from Iraq arrived in San Diego, among others. 



The advent of World War Two brings heightened awareness to global interconnectedness and the challenges faced by forcibly displaced people.

Lutheran Community Services Northwest

Founded in 1921. Expands its mission during the Great Depression and begins working in refugee resettlement in the 1940’s, helping individuals and families fleeing war-torn Europe find hope and new opportunities in Northwest communities.



Grossmont Adult Education (GAE)

This program services refugees through English language programs to help those with foreign degrees overcome cultural struggles.




Arab-Israeli War

The Israeli Declaration of Independence is issued on May 14, 1948, marking the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli war and ongoing conflict over the disputed land. 


Creation of UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is created to support in relief and human development of Palestinian refugees. The UNRWA definition of “refugee” covers Palestinians who are fleeing or being expelled from their homes during the 1948 Palestine War.

Burma Conflict

The world’s longest running civil war, still ongoing in 2020, begins over the ethnic conflicts in Burma (Myanmar). 


Jewish Family Services

Establishes its location in San Diego. In postwar efforts, they expand and shift their focus to family strengthening and counseling. In the 1980’s, it partners with Hebrew International Aid Society to aid refugees in resettlement in San Diego. 



Laubach Literacy Council of San Diego County, Inc

This organization is founded with the goal of helping adults learn English as a second language, offering free ESL classes

Access, Inc

Providing English language and job training classes, Access, Inc. helps relocate and resettle refugees who move to San Diego at the end of the Vietnam War. 



Bilingual Education Act

This organization is founded with the goal of helping adults learn English as a second language, offering free ESL classes


San Diego refugee resettlement organizations begin to grow in number due to the proximity of Camp Pendleton, the first destination for many refugees from Southeast Asia following the American war in Vietnam. (Jesse Mills, 2008)

Ethiopian Civil War

The Ethiopian civil war begins in what is modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea. 



Social Advocates for Youth

This nonprofit organization works collaboratively with existing structures and systems to address youth, adult, and family wellness, child and youth development, and community engagement. 


Camp Pendleton

By November, Camp Pendleton has temporarily housed about 50,400 Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam war.



Casa Familiar

Originally established in 1968 under the name Trabajadores de la Raza,  this community-based organization expands its efforts from solely serving Spanish-speaking clients in San Ysidro to providing services and programs to all South San Diego County residents. They offer legal and non-legal services for new arrivals.

International Rescue Committee (IRC)


Somali Family Service


This non-profit, community based social service organization provides culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and services to refugee and immigrant communities of San Diego. 


Migrant Education Region IX

The No Child Left Behind Act is administered through the San Diego County Office of Education and is a supplemental educational program providing support for student’s while collaborating with school districts and other community agencies. Each district designs what plans of service would be best for their students to create equitable opportunities and higher graduation rates.

License to Freedom


Created as a way to advocate for refugee and immigrant battered women with prevention, treatment, and promoting social justice, the staff is made up of refugees. Their areas of focus are Middle eastern, African Northern European refugees. They provide a 52 week domestic violence treatment program in languages like Arabic, Farsi, and Kurdish. They also provide free legal services to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking. 


Young African’s Activities Club

Formed by the San Diego Police Department in response to documented street gang activity, this club has more than 300 East African youth enrolled, with active participation from between 50 and 200 during meetings and events.  (Mills) 

War In Darfur

The major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan begins. Today, about 300,000 refugees from Darfur are currently living in camps in eastern Chad.



Young Men for Responsibility and Community


The Iraq War

The Iraq war begins. As of 2019, over 2 million Iraqi’s remain displaced within Iraq and 250,000 in neighboring countries.


Somali-Bantu Community Organization

This organization works on projects like City Heights Youth for Change and creating parent support networks for the over 700 Bantu refugees resettled in San Diego county (mostly City Heights) due to a history of discrimination in Somalia

Iftin Charter School


The charter school, Iftin, meaning hope in Somali, is opened by Somali refugees in mid-city San Diego.


Immigration Justice Project

Created with the mission of promoting due process and access to justice at all levels of the immigration and appellate court system, this organization provides high-quality pro bono legal services for those in immigration proceedings in San Diego.

Crawford High School New Arrival Center


The NAC program had the goal of providing a safe space to refugees and helping them become proficient in English in a year so they could continue on into credit-bearing classes. 


San Diego Refugee Tutoring

Started by teachers who recognized the need for extra support and growth of refugee students in City Heights, the programovides one-on-one tutoring for students.

The Karen Organization of San Diego


The organization was established to help Karen refugees stay connected with their culture, providing them with social and educational services. Their main goals are self-sufficiency and community building.


Parent/Student/ Resident Organization

Developed through the Global Action Research Center to help organize families with children attending public schools on the east side of City Heights, the organizations goal is to be engaged in shaping district plans and policies. Their efforts expanded to the west side of City Heights in 2018 through school board meetings and community forums, The result included changes such a serving halal meals for Muslim students, decreasing suspension rates, increasing interpretation services in the district, and expanding A-G language requirements to include all languages so students could pass using their native language.

California Leads in Refugee Resettlement 


Of 85,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2016, the largest group: 7,908 settled in CA.


Federal Refugee Limit Increase 

President Obama increases the federal refugee limit to 110,000.

Marked Syrian Refugee Increase 

San Diego County receives 626 Syrian refugees between October 1st and September 1st, the highest number of Syrian resettlers across the United States.


Syrian Civil War

The still ongoing Syrian civil war begins. As of 2020, over 5.6 million civilians are refugees and 6.2 million displaced internally.



From 2010-2015 around 2,700 refugees resettled in City Heights from over 45 different countries. The top countries represented are Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Mexico, and Ethiopia.



Refugee Admissions in San Diego

San Diego County is ranked first among refugee admissions to California in the Federal Fiscal Year with 2,110 refugees. This is a 51% decrease from 2010, but a 110% increase from 2006.

Immigration Center for Women and Children


A non-profit legal organization originally established in Los Angeles, a San Diego office is opened, providing free and affordable immigration services to disadvantaged immigrants in California and Nevada.


City Heights Prep Charter School

Opened in City Heights with 2/3 of its population being refugees, the school gives refugees one hour of English instruction each day and return to their peers after. It also serves students even after they are 18 to obtain their diploma.

CVUSD Receives Refugee Impact Grant


Cajon Valley Unified School District receives a three-year Refugee School Impact Grant from the CA department of social services in hopes of seeing an increased school attendance by refugees.


SDUSD Receives Refugee School Impact Grant

San Diego Unified School District receives a three-year Refugee School Impact Grant from the CA department of social services in hopes of increasing mental health services to deal with trauma, interpreters to promote parent involvement, coordination/communication between schools and agencies, and additional tutoring.

City Heights Youth for Change


Targeted at refugee youth ages 14-26, this program was formed by Bantu women who came together under the “grant from the California Endowment as part of its Building Healthy Communities Initiative (BHC)” and as a part of a Global ARC project.It has worked to increase voter turnout in City Heights and helped organize the 2016 Youth Power Summit.


Interrupted Educations

At Crawford High School, 30% of the students were refugees with interrupted or no formal education in their home countries.

Iraq Civil War

The Iraqi insurgency escalated into a civil war until 2017. Over 3 million civilians were displaced within the country and 260,000 forced to seek refuge elsewhere.

Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program 




Libyan Civil War

The Libyan civil war begins. Over 1 million civilians are forced to flee.

Implemented by the Obama administration, this program helps expedite reunification of Haitian families displaced due to the Haitian earthquake of 2010

Yemeni Civil War

The Yemeni civil war begins. Today over 3.6 million civilians have been forced to flee their homes.



Burmese Refugees in the U.S.

According to the CDC from 2008-2014, approximately 109,000 Burmese refugees arrived in the United States from camps and urban settings in Thailand and Malaysia. Religious persecution forced them to flee. Texas received the largest refugee population with 14%. 


International Center Program 

Started by the SDUSD to help English language learners stay in credit bearing classes, this program is in 5 high schools, 2 middle schools and provides an English Language Development Coach in the students’ general classes.

San Diego Refugee Forum 

Developed as a community of service providers that desire to help refugees and those who are seeking refuge in San Diego, this forum creates a place for service providers to freely share information and proactively collaborate with each other to provide more effective refugee services.



$37 Million in federal funds to CA

California receives $37 million in federal funds for refugee costs. The funds pay for initial housing costs and then provide cash aid for the refugees for about 90 days, until refugees must begin paying their own expenses.

Breakthrough English: High School Refugee Academy


Funded by the Title III federal funding, La Mesa-Spring Valley School District implements a month long summer immersion program for refugees as an introduction to education processes, to expand their English learning, and to build social skills. This program was free of cost and provided transportation, as well as lunch. The students showed to have an average half-year growth in their English and math abilities.


Exiled Voice: The Refugee Art Experience

Launched with SAY San Diego Crawford Community Connection and in partnership with Intrepid theatre company, this project paired refugee students with artists in the community to compose artwork based on their stories. A free public performance at the Horton Grand Theatre was held on March 6th, 2017.

UCSD: Refugee Health Unit 

The University of California, San Diego School of Medicine started the Refugee Health Unit as a way to collaborate with Ethnic Community Based Organizations in San Diego to provide refugee mental and financial health protections.



Refugee Arrival between 1975 - 2017

According to data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, more than 3 million refugees in total have arrived in the U.S. between 1975 - 2017.

Summer Refugee Academy

In partnership with San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego, the International Rescue Committee in San Diego announces a four week Summer Refugee Academy for 20 Mann Middle School selected students to partake in community service, academic enrichment, civic service, and leadership activities.



California Newcomer Education and Well-Being Project 

This San Diego Unified School Districts program is a school-based initiative, authorized by assembly bill 99 and provides additional services for refugees and other eligible school-age students to enhance social and academic performance.

Canada Largest Refugee Resettlement

According to BBC news Canada resettled the largest number of refugees out of 25 countries in 2018. The country accepted just over 28,000 refugees with the United States coming in second with 22,900. The first time the U.S. did not lead the world on this measure since the adoption of the Refugee Act in 1980.



Displacement Record

According to the United Nations, the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record with 70.8 million people around the world forced to flee by conflict and persecution at the end of 2018. Among them are nearly 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

Refugee School Impact Program

This program provided money to school districts to help refugees who came to San Diego five or fewer years ago to improve their academic performance. Cajon Valley Unified, SD receives $93,555 and San Diego Unified, SD receives $70,875.



Refugee By Alan Grantz

Teachers at the Cajon Valley Unified School District board meeting propose adding the book Refugee by Alan Grantz to the 8th grade core literature list. This book centers around three main characters who are from Nazi Germany, 1990 Cuba, and Syria.

Federal Refugee Limit Reduced 

President Trump reduces American refugee limit from 30,000 to 18,000 for the next 12 months.



85% Refugee Resettlement Increase in San Diego

Due in part to the rise of violence, conflicts between different groups, and political conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, San Diego county sees an 85% increase in refugee resettlement, despite only a 10% increase state-wide. Syria and Iraq also send the largest amount of refugees to San Diego despite marked decrease due to increased Trump era screenings.

Multilingual Education and Global Achievement Network


Established with the goal of supporting the needs of English learners, immigrants/refugees, dual-language learners, world language learners, and newcomer students in their districts and schools by educating attendees about topics related to English Language Learners.


Chula Vista Certified as a “Welcoming City”

The first city in the state to be certified a “welcoming” city by Welcoming America for supporting immigrants. In 2016, Chula Vista was made up of more than 30% immigrants.

“Power Up” After-school program


Cajon Valley Unified School District offers this program as a part of the Refugee School Impact Grant at five elementary schools and one middle school for the 2019-2020 school year. This program is for refugee students from 2nd-8th grade, offering tutoring, homework help, English development (for children and parents), and help for adults to understand school systems to better support their students’ futures and careers.


Youth Mentoring Project Award

Three San Diego nonprofits (The International Rescue Committee, Jewish Family Services of San Diego, and Somali Bantu Association of America ) receive awards of$55,000 each to provide youth, ages 15-24, with mentoring services and to support refugee youth.

San Diego County Refugee Families Emergency Fund



San Diego is predominantly a military town with significant naval and aviation industries. The 1950’s marks the United States’ continued rise as a global superpower. Economic growth and prosperity parallels an increasing xenophobia and fear of communism. The Cold War begins.



Creation of the UNHCR

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) opens in 1950, during the aftermath of the Second World War, to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam war begins, arising from conflict between the communist government of North Vietnam and South Vietnam with it’s ally the U.S government. The war would end in 1975, having displaced over 1.6 million Vietnamese people.



Hungarian Revolution

In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, 200,000 civilians flee to neighboring Austria. UNHCR leads efforts to resettle them. 


A backlash against conformity and the Vietnam War sparked a “counter-cultural” revolution in the U.S. 

Many Filipinos and Mexicans resettle in Barrio Logan and southeast San Diego. 

Waves of Chaldeans flee from the Baathist government of Iraq.


Events in San Diego

Events in United States 

Global Events 

Through Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA) and in collaboration with prominent refugee programs in San Diego, this emergency fund plan provides small, one-time grants to cover rent, utilities, childcare, food, and other emergency needs for refugees in San Diego. As of May 22nd, they have already provided emergency grants to 250 families and a total of 1,502 individuals.