By Malika MacDonald
Given the refugee crisis that is gripping Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey and spilling into Europe after years of bloodshed in Syria, the pressure is on the Obama Administration to accept more refugees into the United States.
But aside from the debates and questions about how best to help refugees and how many to accept, what does it mean to be a refugee in America? This is a question that isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Besides the obvious culture shock and differences in language, the Refugee Resettlement Process itself is cloaked in misconceptions — both on the part of refugees themselves as well as the general public.
Case in point: There was an Iraqi family who was resettled in America by an agency in the middle of the winter. ICNA (Islamic Center of North America) Relief Boston received a call from their building management company, and what we found was deplorable. A family of four had been given a queen size mattress, no bed, two pillows and four blankets. No more.
There were barely any pots and pans or plates and dishes to serve food, nor a refrigerator to keep food fresh. The family was putting food outside in the snow to keep it from spoiling. The 30 dollars they were given to purchase food by their caseworker had also run out.
This is not a unique situation. When we shared this story with our Chicago chapter, we learned that this family was better off than most refugee families
True or False:
1. Refugees receive sufficient benefits from the U.S. government when they arrive.
False: Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Voluntary Organization (VOLAG) or Refugee Resettlement Agency is given a meager grant from the government to assist in the resettlement process, an amount that barely suffices a family who have just the clothes on their back.
Families receive on average $350 a month per adult (couples receive $700), but it often doesn’t even cover the cost of rent. If they have qualifying children, they receive TAFDC and Food Stamps. Food Stamps and TAFDC do not kick in until individuals receive their Social Security cards, which often takes months.
Most refugee families have very little food the first few weeks here.
2. Refugees are required to sign a travel loan before they are allowed to leave the country they are fleeing.
True: Within six months of arriving in the United States, refugees are required to begin making monthly installments to pay back the loan for their plane tickets. They arrive in the U.S. neck deep in debt.
3. Refugees receive subsidized housing (Section 8) when they arrive in United States.
False: The Voluntary Resettlement Agencies (collectively termed VOLAGS) identifies an apartment and pays only the first and, often, last month’s rent on behalf of the refugee family. By the second month in the United States, families are responsible for their own rent. Yet, they do not receive sufficient financial assistance to do so.
The International Rescue Committee closed their office in Massachusetts because they felt they could not responsibly place families here due to the high cost of living and exuberant rents. In doing my own research, I found that many of the Iraqi refugees resettled locally faced eviction after their fourth month in the U.S., because they were unable to afford the apartment provided for them.
4. The Resettlement Agencies are mandated to provide basic necessities when refugees arrive.
True: The Resettlement Agencies are mandated to provide basic necessities such as clothing, bedding and household items. However, the reality differs. Ahlam Mahmood, our ICNA Relief Chicago Outreach Coordinator and a former Iraqi refugee, arrived in the U.S. to no more than a few forks and knives and plates.
As we went through the list, we discovered she was not provided with the basic necessities required for a family of her size: Pillows, blankets, plates, utensils and more — all items the Resettlement Agency receives government funding to provide!
5. Refugees receive welfare and other benefits as soon as they arrive in the United States.
False: The Refugee Resettlement Agency provides individuals with cash assistance on average for the first six to eight months. Adults receive about $350 per month (this amount fluctuates depending on funding), and if they have qualifying children, they receive TAFDC (welfare) and food stamps.
However, in order to receive government entitlements, one must have a social security card; this takes several weeks resulting in a corresponding delay in receiving benefits. The families are often left to subsist on very little in the interim.
6. Resettlement agencies help refugees find work.
True: Resettlement agencies claim to offer job support up to five years, but the help is far from optimal. The jobs they do find often don’t align with the skills set of more educated refugees. Furthermore, foreign professional licenses and degrees are not recognized by U.S. institutions. Foreign educated or trained individuals need to get their transcripts and their coursework evaluated and certified in order to build on their credentials here.
7. Refugees always have access to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
False: Individuals who are 18+ are required to participate in ESL classes in order to receive cash benefits. Organizations, such as ICNA Relief, offer ESL classes as do many local libraries, churches and other faith groups. However, based on where refugees are housed, they may have to travel a distance. On a fixed, barely-livable income, this presents a catch-22 situation.
Organizations that pay for bus cards can ease some of the difficulty.
What Can You Do?
Donate to organizations that support refugees: ICNA Relief has 14 chapters across the U.S. We have warehouses to receive in-kind donations of new clothing and household items. We also provide groceries through our Halal Food Pantry, and in some circumstances, gift cards to our local grocery store. Your monetary donations allow us to help refugees in need. Donate generously by clicking here.
Donate a car. In most U.S. cities, transport is sorely lacking. For refugees, this means fewer employment prospects and even greater social isolation. With every car donation ICNA Relief has made to a refugee family, we’ve seen the domino effect. Besides being able to find employment, refugees use their car for the benefit of other refugees.
Mentor a refugee family. Case management is critical to the well-being of refugees. Mentor volunteers, in tandem with ICNA Relief caseworkers, help refugees learn how to access social benefits and get acclimated to America.
Refugee families also need friendship. It can be anything from a monthly social visit to helping them learn that generic and bulk groceries are cheaper than name brand. To learn what mentoring involves, sign up today by clicking here.
Mental Health practitioners and translators are needed. Having culturally sensitive counselors on deck means being able to provide education/awareness for families dealing with mental health issues and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Select ICNA Relief chapters do have licensed therapists on hand and free counseling is available.
Many non-profit and faith based agencies tend to the unmet needs of Refugee families, often picking up where the resettlement agencies leave off. But, they do so with very few resources. Human capitol can and does make a real difference in the life of others. Please visit your state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants for a listing of organizations within your community who are working with newcomer families and volunteer your time and energy.
Malika MacDonald is the director of the ICNA Relief USA; Massachusetts Field Office and has been working with refugee communities for more than 15 years.