John Muirhead, back, chairman of The Refugee Center, poses with volunteers who were helping a family from Afghanistan that moved to Champaign-Urbana in 2018.

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CHAMPAIGN — Champaign-Urbana knows how to roll out the welcome mat for people new to this country.

At least John Muirhead thinks so. And a big part of that warm welcome is due to Muirhead’s work with The Refugee Center.

A longtime board member and chairman of the center, formerly called the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, Muirhead has a heart for the refugee.

“I think Champaign-Urbana is probably a little unique in its acceptance” of immigrants, Muirhead said. “We have found the community on the large part very welcoming, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to exist and serve so many people over the years.

“There are so many community partners, whether churches, individuals or organizations” that have helped.

Muirhead tries to see things through the eyes of those new to this country.

“I use the word ‘navigate.’ Can you imagine trying to navigate around town and not speak the language?” Muirhead said. “There’s where The Refugee Center comes in. One thing they do so well is to help make things more comfortable.”

Muirhead’s efforts have not gone unnoticed and will be recognized with the Claire Szoke Lifetime of Service Award presented Saturday during a virtual ceremony at the eighth annual Immigration Welcome Awards by the Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum.

He received several nominations for the award.

Forum board member Ricardo Diaz describes Muirhead as “the kind of guy who would rather not be in the spotlight. He just wants to get the work done. He’s not shy about the work. He’s shy about the spotlight.”

Center Director Lisa Wilson agrees and said Muirhead doesn’t do the work to receive accolades.

“I think if he had his way, he would not be receiving recognition. He’s extremely humble and modest, but 40 years of very devoted service to a cause that is very worthwhile and support” is worthy of praise, Wilson said.

“His contribution to the well-being of immigrants in Champaign-Urbana has been tremendous.”

‘Always available for assistance’

The 74-year-old Danville native, a past director of Urbana Adult Education, has been on the refugee board since its founding in the 1980s. He retired from education in 2005.

Wilson said Muirhead is far more than a board member/chairman. He gets involved, keeping “in the loop of what we’re working on.”

“He’s always available for assistance,” she said, including reviewing of financials and reports as well as providing personal services, whether it’s transporting people to Indianapolis for fingerprints or helping newly arrived families get oriented.

“He’s done a lot of work,” Wilson said.

One example is when Co-Director Ha Ho, who also served as translator in several languages, broke her collarbone and couldn’t drive for a couple of weeks.

Muirhead took on the role of chauffeur and drove her to appointments to meet with immigrants and refugees so they could get needed help.

One nominator called Muirhead “a gentle giant,” a “sincere person with a heart of gold who would do everything he could to help a person in need. That was the essence of his work with refugees.”

‘Very high value on education’

To Muirhead, they’re more than just names or statistics. Each refugee has a story to tell.

He remembers meeting a group of young people ranging in age from 16 to 20 who came to the United States from Vietnam, leaving their communist-controlled country in the early ’80s. They had to grow up fast.

“They were like the first from their families to come,” Muirhead said. “The families had found ways to get their children out. (The whole goal in life of the children) was to get educated and get a job and help to bring their families to the United States.

“There was the hope that the young people would be able to do something to help the entire family.”

Called “boat people,” many came with few possessions. Some brought babies with them.

Muirhead said now those young people are grown “and doing great work. Many became college graduates and went on to ‘professional-type careers.’

“I think all of the immigrants and refugees had a very, very high value on education,” he said, “starting with such things as English as a second language. Many went on to Parkland” and four-year colleges.

Others have come from all corners — Soviet Jews around 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union; Eastern Europe to escape the wars in Bosnia and the region; a large contingent from Africa, primarily the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The latter were tied to what Muirhead called “the diversity lottery,” which allowed and targeted people from different parts of the world and gave them a chance to immigrate.

Most recent immigrants have come from Afghanistan and Central America.

The major cities are the primary focus of immigration resettlement. Champaign-Urbana is considered “remote” for such cases.

Muirhead said the United Conference of Catholic Bishops handles many of those cases and tries to settle immigrants as close to other family members as they can.

‘It’s been a privilege’

Muirhead has also been active with the immigrant community with his church, First Presbyterian of Champaign, which started a ministry with French-speaking Congolese immigrants in town.

He said for about seven years he was involved in the transportation program, driving people to church.

Muirhead said he has had the privilege of seeing the evolution of the Refugee Center from a small agency headquartered in the Unitarian Universalist Church to a much larger space within the Champaign County Public Health building.

Said Muirhead: “It’s been a privilege to get to know the students and the clients. Certainly we have a great deal of positive feelings of the great people who have worked and the folks who have been served by the Refugee Center. Also, the board of directors.”

Our County Editor

Dave Hinton is editor of The News-Gazette's Our County section and former editor of the Rantoul Press. He can be reached at

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