Recession Hits New Refugees Hard
ALEX COHEN, host:
The U.S. takes in about 60,000 refugees each year. When they arrive, they get financial assistance for several months. In the past, that's generally been enough to tide them over until they find work. Now, with the recession, many refugees are finding it difficult to become economically independent. From New Hampshire Public Radio, Jon Greenberg reports.
JON GREENBERG: Bima and Lakshu Ocharia(ph) and their three children came to Concord, New Hampshire five months ago. Ethnically Nepalese, Bima and Lakshu were born in Bhutan, a small Himalayan country squeezed in between India and China.
18 years ago, the Bhutanese government forced many ethnic Nepalese to leave. Bima and Lakshu have spent most of their adult lives living in refugee camps in Nepal. They could neither work in Nepal nor go back to Bhutan. A local resettlement volunteer, Doug Hall, takes me to their Spartan apartment.
Mr. DOUG HALL: This is Bima.
Ms. BIMA OCHARIA: I'm Bima.
GREENBERG: Nice to meet you.
Ms. OCHARIA: Nice to meet you, too.
(Soundbite of door opening)
GREENBERG: The sweet aroma of Indian spices hangs in the air. The local resettlement agency, Lutheran Social Services, provided furniture and clothes. A mix of federal funds and charitable donations covers the cost of rent and food. Lakshu Ocharia says that will soon end.
Mr. LAKSHU OCHARIA: (Dzongkha spoken).
GREENBERG: Doug Hall translates.
Mr. HALL: Beginning January 1, they're going to be responsible on their own for paying the house rent, and what he simply said is, without a job, how am I going to be possibly be able to pay the rent?
GREENBERG: Lakshu and his wife have applied at dozens of companies. In the time they've been here, he has worked only three days for a small manufacturer. Some of their fellow Bhutanese have found temporary Christmas jobs at retailers like Target, but that income will end in January. The very first Bhutanese refugees to arrive in this country came to New Hampshire, all told, about 40 households. Many of them are in similar circumstances as the Ocharias.
Ms. AMY MARSHALL (Overseas Refugee Resettlement, Lutheran Social Services): I would say we have about 12 to 15 families that we're tracking closely right now.
GREENBERG: Amy Marshall(ph) is in overseas-refugee resettlement at Lutheran Social Services. To have a third of her clients without stable income after six months is something she has never seen before. LSS has no money to continue paying their rent. But Marshall then remains hopeful that a special appeal to local congregations and others will bear fruit.
Ms. MARSHALL: We will depend on the generosity of donors.
GREENBERG: And if those donors don't materialize?
Ms. MARSHALL: Then the refugees in that situation would be just like anybody else in the community who might be in that situation.
Ms. MARSHALL: Possibly.
GREENBERG: A common path for a refugee in America is a few months of assistance followed by a job with modest wages and a hard scramble to more secure economic footing. Historically, according to government figures, about 70 percent succeed. The recession is causing many to falter on the way. Lavinia Limon is the president of a nonprofit, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Ms. LAVINIA LIMON (President, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants): We hear anecdotally of refugees being evicted. We've not seen it on whole scale yet.
GREENBERG: Limon works with many of the local organizations that helped refugees in hundred of communities across the country. Limon says those groups are scrambling.
Ms. LIMON: I know that all the agencies that are doing this are spending lots of money. We're spending money that we don't really have. It's a hedge against disaster, but, you know, having a family homeless is a bigger disaster with my balance sheet right now.
GREENBERG: Resettlement advocates say federal aid has long fallen short of what's needed. Local charities try to fill the gap, but in a tough economy, that resource is stretched thin. Advocates do not want to see refugees end up on public assistance. They say, at the very least, Washington could provide some extra dollars to help with the current crunch.
David Siegel directs the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Siegel says, right now, he has no more money. His hands are tied by a continuing budget resolution that limits spending at last year's level. But Siegel holds out hope.
Mr. DAVID H. SIEGEL (Director, Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services): When we have a final budget for '09, if you invited me back, I'd probably give you a different answer. Until that time, the answer is, we do not have any.
GREENBERG: There is a common refrain in the resettlement community. As difficult as things might be here, they are infinitely better than life at a refugee camp. Most refugees seemed to agree, but not all.
(Soundbite of people talking)
GREENBERG: In the parking lot outside their apartment, Lakshu and Bima Ocharia talk about their situation. Lakshu says he would rather be here without a job than in a camp without a future. But Bima thinks her friends back in the refugee camps ought to stay there until the economy improves.
Ms. OCHARIA: (Dzongkha spoken)
GREENBERG: This time, a Bhutanese neighbor translates.
Ms. OCHARIA: (Through Translator) She is not going to tell them to come here because the bills for - the electric bills, heat on in the winter season and children. Seeing all these things, she cannot say to all those to come because they may also face difficulties in the later days.
GREENBERG: This might be a minority view, but it speaks to the uncertainty all these refugees feel as they approach the moment when, in a totally unfamiliar land, they will have no means to provide for themselves and their children. For NPR News, I'm Jon Greenberg in Concord, New Hampshire.
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