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Agency scales back plans to bring refugees to the Triad, lack of jobs cited as reason

by Jordan Green

DON’T WANT TO LIVE LIKE A REFUGEE

RN, a 13-year-old Burmese refugee, greeted the Muslim women from the Islamic Center of the Triad as they arrived in a convoy of minivans to the parking lot of Brookfield Woods apartments on Lawndale Drive in north Greensboro. Dressed in a navy-blue T-shirt, camouflage pants and flip-flops in the balmy evening, the boy possessed an impish smile, impeccable manners and an upbeat personality. As the most proficient English speaker in his community, he has become an indispensable translator and cultural intermediary for the women from the mosque. The N family, whose name is being withheld at the discretion of this newspaper in consideration of their safety, came to Greensboro about a year ago from Burma. A small poster depicting a protester muzzled by a red strip of cloth and declaring “Democracy for Burma” identifies them as opponents of the military dictatorship at home, but an Obama sticker affixed to their television set marks them as hopeful new Americans. The women from the refugee program at the Islamic Center of the Triad, led by 38-year-old Amal Sayed of Burlington, have concluded with a sense of righteous indignation that the refugees’ basic needs are not being met and that a chain of international actors — starting with the US

State Department and ending with local resettlement agencies — have betrayed their promises to the refugees. “I’m sorry, I think these people are making money off of these people, not using the money in the right way,” said Sayed, a former teacher who stayed home for health reasons before assuming the volunteer role of refugee case worker for her mosque. “To me, it’s like selling a human being.” Lutheran Family Services and other resettlement agencies receive $425 to spend on behalf of refugees on such basic needs as rent and utilities, and an equal amount to cover administrative overhead. The agencies interim director of refugee and immigration services said the allotment does not fully cover the cost of placing refugees. A handful of refugees at Brookfield Woods who spoke through the 13-year-old translator and his older brother, AN, said they had not found work, had run out of money and were struggling to make rent. The Muslim women contend that before they arrived on the scene, some members of the community were going hungry and did not have adequate clothing for cold weather; those allegations were difficult to verify. Sayed said that RN contacted an Iraqi woman who also lives at the apartment complex to tell her that roughly a dozen

Burmese families were facing hunger. The Iraqi woman brought the child to the mosque, where Sayed entered tallies for each member of the families from information provided by RN. Sayed has also opened case files for about 30 Iraqi families in Greensboro and High Point. Restaurateurs and members of the mosque began donating food — pizza, and rice and chicken were among the gleanings on Thursday, Dec. 11 — and the refugee program started assembling food bags. Later that day, when the minivans arrived at Brookfield Woods, RN greeted them and roughly a dozen Burmese women and men, along with a woman refugee from Somalia, quickly materialized, gratefully accepting the donations. “You called the sister, didn’t you?” Sayed asked RN, seeking confirmation that members of the community were suffering from hunger. “You didn’t have a dinner.” RN nodded affirmatively. When asked how many times he had gone hungry, he indicated twice. Later, he seemed to contradict his early statement, saying that no one had gone hungry and all the families had coats, suggesting he may have not understood the questions. RN led the Muslim women into his family’s apartment, where Sayed checked the refrigerator and concluded that the only food for the family of six was what her group had delivered the previous Sunday. Through AN, the boys’ mother said she had eaten only a little, gestured to her stomach and mentioned that she had visited the hospital recently. It could not be ascertained whether she had not eaten because of an illness, or she was hospitalized because of malnourishment. Htin Lwai said through RN that he and his wife had run out of money and had been unable to find work, while their sponsor — a person from the community who agrees to help refugees — no longer visits. Jee Sar Dar, also from Burma, and a resident of nearby Lemans at Lawndale Apartments, said her food stamps had run out, and after spending money on food she had nothing left over for rent. Sometimes, she said, her family’s diet consists of solely rice. Sarah Ivory, interim director of refugee and immigration services at Lutheran Family Services, said that her agency placed three Burmese refugee families in the Lawndale Drive area last year. “All three of the families at the Lawndale location have food stamps,” Ivory said. “The food stamps allotment is generally sufficient for a family; it’s based on the size of the family. Of course, it depends on how they spend it. If you spend three-hundred dollars in the first week it’s very likely that the fourth week you may not have as much anymore. For these families, they’ve already been here a year. They would know how to use their food stamps by now certainly.” The Burmese refugees who arrived last year have largely exhausted the aid

promised by the USgovernment through the resettlement agencies contracted to place themin Greensboro, and a wave of refugees from Iraqwho began arriving last spring are rapidly finding themselves in thesame boat. “All of them when they first arrive they receive servicesthrough us, including applications for food stamps and Medicaid,” Ivorysaid. “We assist them with obtaining housing, clothing when they firstarrive and a limited amount of financial support. The US governmentthrough the State Department provides $425 per person one time to ouragency to support families upon their arrival. And so we use that moneyfor rent, utilities, deposit, food, clothing — all of their basic needsneed to come out of that. So that’s how we support them when they firstarrive. As we come through the reception and placement program, that’sa ninetyday period of time that we have to spend that money. “Afterthat period of time, there’s no additional financial support unlessthey’re enrolled in an additional program, which some families are andsome families aren’t; we don’t have enough slots for everyone,” Ivorycontinued. “Those who aren’t enrolled in an additional program we referto the [Guilford County] Department of Social Services to apply forpublic benefits. They may receive refugee cash assistance, which isalso limited: It’s only $181 per month for a maximum of eight months.Or, if it’s a family with children they may apply for WorkFirst, whichis a program through [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], andthat’s the same as what all American families would apply for; it’s alimited amount of money per month and it’s tied to consistent workefforts.” Particularly for the Iraqi refugees, resettlement inthe Triad has been a frustrating and disappointing experience, Sayedsaid. “I don’t understand why they are being brought here. They saythey’re going to get a house and a job,” she said, acknowledging shehas only a cursory understanding of the roles played by the chain ofagencies responsible for accepting, receiving and resettling refugees.“They’re not getting any of it. It’s a lie. This is the story I hearfrom every one of them. You can say two percent of the families have ajob.” Abu Hassan, a Shia Muslim and trained pharmacist from Baghdad,arrived in Greensboro on June 24. He was shot five times by men hecalls terrorists. The bullets remain in his body, he said, and hesuffers from Fibromyalgia Syndrome, a condition of joint and musclepain associated with stress. Because of his disabilities he has beenunable to work. He said his transportation is compromised by owning adamaged car. Another Iraqi woman, who spoke on condition of anonymityout of a desire to avoid antagonizing her resettlement agency, has beenin Greensboro for eight months. She fled Iraqafter two brothers disappeared without a trace and her mother died fromdiabetes. After that, she spent three years in Syria, where sheobtained refugee status and won admission to the United Statesthrough the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Instead of gettinga fresh start in Greensboro, she finds herself still unemployed aftersubmitting dozens of applications, isolated in an apartment where shefeels unsafe, and reliant on public transit to get to classes at GTCC.Ivory said the process of resettling refugees from Iraq,where the American military has been deployed for half a decade, hasbeen fraught with a peculiar blend of unrealistic expectations,misinformation and consequent disappointment. “There are a lotof misconceptions that were circling around the Iraqi communityoverseas,” she said. “This has been such a big issue that the StateDepartment has actually issued a statement to be given to the refugeesbefore they come, to detail what their expectations should be. Therewere a lot of Iraqis who were coming during the first wave who believedthey would be given a job upon arrival, that they would have six monthsof rent paid, all of these things. And then the reality is that whenyou got here you were given just a small amount of dollars. It was verydifficult…. There were a lot of people who worked with US militarypeople who said, ‘You can come, I’ll help you.’ And they may have beenwilling to help that one person, but that’s not the same asguaranteeing that every Iraqi refugee will have a job when they come.”A common complaint is heard among both Burmese and Iraqi refugees thatsponsorships from churches, mosques and synagogues offering supporthave not materialized. Ivory acknowledged that, particularly in summermonths when new arrivals come in large numbers, it is hard to findenough houses of worship to match with each refugee. Between April 1and Oct. 1, Lutheran Family Services placed 25 Iraqis in Greensboro,along with 43 refugees from Burma and 53 from Bhutan. LutheranFamily Services spokesman Michael Andrews said that the agency’s jobplacement rate for refugees has been at 100 percent — a statistic atdramatic variance with Sayed’s claim that only about 2 percent ofrecent arrivals from Iraqare working — but Andrews and Ivory acknowledged that at the end of thesummer the job market took a turn for the worse for their clients. Overallin the federal fiscal year running from October 2007 through September2008, Lutheran Family Services placed 786 refugees in the Carolinas.After Raleigh, Greensboro received the highest number: 282. The agencyhad planned to ramp up placements to 960 statewide and 355 inGreensboro in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, but retrenched to 450statewide and 200 in Greensboro after taking stock of the gloomyeconomic outlook. “Our agency has dramatically scaled down thenumber of refugees that we’ll be working with in the next year,” Ivorysaid, “for this reason that we don’t want to bring them here if wecan’t place them in jobs.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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