Refugees Can't Flee Recession

Refugees come to this country to start over, but the recession is making that harder to do. It's harder to find work, and the non-profits that support refugees are finding it harder to raise donations. Critics say the government needs to do more. Jamila Trindle brings us the story on the struggle for refugees to adjust to the new economic reality and what's being done to help them.

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Refugees come to the United States to seek freedom, protection and to escape from war or persecution in their home countries. President Obama has authorized the U.S. to accept up to 80,000 refugees next year. But since the beginning of the recession, many refugees have been struggling financially and recent arrivals are having a hard time finding work.

As Jamila Trindle reports, critics say the problem is not just the economy, but an underfunded refugee resettlement program.

JAMILA TRINDLE: Moutaz al-Madaras(ph) has been in the country for four months. In Iraq, he was a translator and interpreter for the U.S. forces, that's why he had to flee. Al-Madaras went to Jordan where he applied to come to the U.S. as a refugee, a process which requires applicants to prove that they'll be singled out for persecution if they return home. But the transition to the U.S. for al-Madaras, like many Iraqi refugees, has been harder than he expected.

Mr. MOUTAZ AL-MADARAS: Well, it's mix of lots of impressions. Lots of, you know, like contradictory feelings. Some way you feel proud, you feel safe. And the other side tells you, what did I get myself into? I used to have a job, a very special one.

TRINDLE: Without a job, living in Philadelphia, al-Madaras qualifies for Medicaid and welfare. He gets some job counseling but he also has to navigate through the welfare office. He says his benefits were just cut because he found a part-time job.

Juliane Ramic works with the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees.

Ms. JULIANE RAMIC (Nationalities Service Center): The sad truth is that we really have to kind of bite our tongue and swallow hard and know that we're resettling refugees into poverty.

TRINDLE: The Refugee Resettlement program is a confusing bureaucratic system that involves at least three different federal agencies, as well as each state government and is administered on the ground by charity organizations. Those charities cobble together funding from all these different sources, but are also required to raise private funds to support the refugees that are placed in their area.

It's a system that in a down economy has left one Philadelphia charity literally without enough blankets for newly-arrived refugees this winter. Refugee advocates like Bob Casey with the International Rescue Committee say the recession is just revealing systematic, longstanding problems.

Mr. BOB CASEY (International Rescue Committee): Right now, people - refugees coming to the United States are not even being given the basic tools they need to start over.

TRINDLE: The International Rescue Committee administers services to refugees in cities across the U.S. with funding from the federal government. But Kerry(ph) says it's enough.

Mr. CASEY: People are told that when they are brought to the United States they will have an opportunity to rebuild their lives with some degree of dignity and security.

TRINDLE: It's hard to calculate how much money is spent on each individual refugee who comes to this country, because the aid and services vary so widely from state to state and depend on the individual refugee's situation. The State Department is responsible for refugees during their first 30 days in the country. Officials refused to be interviewed, but said in a statement that they are seeking more funding for refugees.

After the first 30 days, refugees become the responsibility of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. Director Eskinder Negash says there is always room for improvement but the government is living up to its promise.

Mr. ESKINDER NEGASH (Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement): I think the (unintelligible) said to freedom, you know, to live freely. The freedom to move, the freedom to own property, the freedom to go to school, the freedom to have employment, I mean, that's basically the basis of refugee resettlement.

TRINDLE: Everyone close to the problem rejects the idea of turning people away because the country is in a recession. Refugees are first and foremost seeking safe haven, and that need doesn't fluctuate with the economy. They also point to the overwhelming success of refugees in the past, even when the economy is down.

For al-Madaras, the recession has meant looking for jobs outside his specialty of translation.

Mr. AL-MADARAS: I know I'm not going to get that chance over here, so I was willing to start from the scratch. I applied, you know, even for housekeeping jobs, even for dishwashing.

TRINDLE: He says he realizes it's a hard time for everyone. And like other refugees, he's adjusting his expectations to the reality of chasing the American dream in a recession.

For NPR News, I'm Jamila Trindle in Philadelphia.

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