Starting Over


My first apartment in Austin was a complete dump. Because I moved from out of state, I found and applied for the apartment online and didn't actually see it until I arrived. When I pulled into the parking lot, my heart sank. The place was shitty (it got demolished in September), but the price was right. Once we crammed three people into a one-bedroom, my rent was only $150 per month. To furnish my new apartment within the range of “livable” condition – I'm talking a Goodwill couch, second hand table, plastic plates and one frying pan – we didn't buy our first mixing bowl for about three months – it cost about $350. Once I factored in a security deposit, stocking my new fridge, and maybe some toiletries, I think my portion of the new apartment and the move cost roughly $1,000. That was just for housing and food. I came with a car, packed full of clothes and shoes, a cell phone, laptop, and a damn good resume. It took me about three weeks to find my first job. I quickly quit, but found a semi-permanent job within two months of my arrival.

So what if I hadn't had the advantages that I did? Could I have gotten a job as easily without a resume, access to a computer, or a cell phone? What if I didn't speak a word of English? I'll guess that if I'd started literally from scratch, the transition wouldn't have gone very smoothly. I think it's fair to say that I wouldn't have gotten settled for months, and if I'd had to learn English, maybe even years. Well, in Austin every year there are about 1,000 refugees, trying to get a fresh start.

What is a Refugee?

A refugee is a “displaced” person who has been forced to leave their home country for a number of reasons. Refugees differ from immigrants in the sense that they did not choose to leave their home country but were forced out or escaped because their lives were in danger. The number of refugees that are accepted in the United States each year is based on a congressional decision that is made annually. In recent years the ceiling has been set around 80,000 people, although the actual number of arrivals tends to fall a little below that. While many countries around the world accept refugees, many don't accept families with unhealthy or disabled members. Sweden, for example, only takes 1,500 refugees per year. As well as passing rigorous screenings and interviews, individuals accepted to Sweden must also be in very good health – mentally and physically. The US does accept people that have no other options. There are cities all over the US that have resettlement agencies, and refugees are placed throughout. In Austin right now, there are refugees from almost every part of the world.

Why They Are Coming Here: Problems in Other Countries

The United States grants refugee status to “displaced” people from around the world. It also grants asylee status to people on US soil (at a US border or already in the country), who can prove that their lives could be in danger if they return home. To be considered a refugee or asylee in the United States, you have to come from a country where the form of government is not democratic (Cuba) or where the government fails to protect its people from things like genocide and religious persecution. While most Americans are aware of the political issues taking place in Cuba, Iraq, and Iran, many are not as informed about other countries.

People who come from the following countries have been forced from their homes into refugee camps; sometimes in their native countries and sometimes in bordering countries. Refugees can spend anywhere from 5 to 30 years in a refugee camp, although 5 to 10 is more typical, before being offered permanent resettlement in a third country. The process of resettlement is time consuming, and even after being accepted the wait can continue for years.

So here are the basics about what's going on.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Rebel armies making money off minerals (like gold & coltan – a key ingredient in many technologies like cellphones) terrorize people. Groups like LRA (Lord's Resistance Army) force minors to enlist and are responsible for over 2,300 deaths since 2008. About 4,500 people die each month, many from starvation. In 2004, 462,203 people left the DRC and found refuge in neighboring countries while 199,323 came into the DRC seeking refuge. The official language of the DRC is French, although more people actually speak Swahili and a variety of other regional languages.

Eritrea: Major issues include inhuman standards for prison systems (along with a lack of any real judicial system) and religious persecution of non government-supported religions (Sunni Islam, Roman Catholic Church, and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church). The majority of people in Eritrea speak Arabic and Tigrinya, although the country boasts no official language and many other languages are spoken.

Ethiopia: Ethiopia is the host to a lot of human rights abuses, but starvation is proving to be one of the biggest problems. The main health problems in Ethiopia are caused by malnutrition and communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS. In 2003 there were an estimated 2.6 doctors per 100,000 people (the United States has about 250 per 100,000). The official language of Ethiopia is Amharic, but the country recognizes about 90 other spoken languages.

Sudan: Wars between North and South went on for years and recent rival nomadic tribes in South Sudan displaced thousands of people. Slavery is common in southern Sudan. Drought and starvation are predominant throughout the country. There are 133 different languages spoken in Sudan, although Arabic is the country's official language. Most of the country practices Islam.

Somalia: Civil war since 1991 and no central form of government are part of the reason why Somalia is one of the poorest and most violent places in the world. This war has impeded agriculture. In combination with the worst drought in over 60 years, people are starving. Since 2009, over 1 million people have been forced to leave their homes due to starvation and genocide (about 300,000 are internally displaced). The official languages are Arabic and Somali (with three major dialects). Most people are Muslim.

Burma: Burmese armies are trying to “cleanse” the country of minorities (about 135 different groups). The minority ethnic groups do not always speak Burmese and sometimes use their ethnic group to name where they are from (i.e.: “I am from Karen”). Over 500,000 people were estimated to be internally displaced (refugees) in 2007. It is not uncommon for the Burmese army to burn down entire villages, forcing inhabitants to travel through the jungle for weeks before finding safety. Human trafficking is also an issue. Burmese is the official language, but a variety of languages are spoken, many of which are very obscure including Karen and Kareni.

Bhutan: The majority of people are Buddhist and speak Bhutanese. The 35% of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, who are generally Hindu, lived predominantly in Southern Bhutan. In the mid 1980s, laws were passed to prevent this minority group from maintaining their laws and customs, and as a result, many (about 100,000 people) fled to Nepal in fear of persecution. By 2011, over 30,000 Nepali speaking Bhutanese refugees resettled in the United States. About 55,000 people are in the process. Refugees from Bhutan speak a variety of Nepali dialects and generally practice Hinduism.

No two refugee camps are alike, but they have a lot of things in common. Camps are a temporary place for people to live. People in the camps are generally not allowed to leave and are always unable to return to their homes. Most camps have very basic food supplies and medical care, but lack jobs, education, and freedom in general. Sometimes families are split up, and members are resettled separately; often in different countries and at different times altogether.

How They Get Here: Bureaucracy

Refugees in camps must apply to come to the United States. Sometimes this is done by people running the camps on the refugee's behalf. The application process is long and can take several years. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) assists voluntary agencies called VOLAGs. VOLAGs work with US Embassy officials and Homeland Security to conduct a very scrupulous interview process and medical screenings. The US accepts people on a case-by-case basis. They do background checks to make sure that a potential refugee doesn't have any previous involvement with criminal groups. If there is any doubt whatsoever about a person's history, they usually are not approved for refugee status in the United States.

Refugees accepted by the US have a “Cultural Orientation,” or CO, which is about 15 hours long. The culture gap between refugees' home countries and the US is huge.Some refugees have never driven a car or seen a traffic light, others have never had running water or electricity. Many don't recognize canned goods as food. While assistant teaching a class of refugees, I did an exercise where students came up to the board and drew their favorite foods. One Burmese man spent several minutes on a small drawing that was unrecognizable. After some pantomime, animal noise imitations, and more drawings, I realized it was an owl. Other Burmese students agreed that this was a delicious food. Some students in the class had never been to school and didn't know how to hold a pencil. I'm not sure what the 15 hour CO consists of, but there's no doubt that it fails to teach many things that refugees need to know about their new country and its culture. Aside from vast cultural differences, refugees do not speak English natively.

After the CO, travel arrangements are made for the refugee's journey to the United States. The entire process, from approval to the actual travel, can take up to five years. Refugees are expected to pay back the government for their travel expenses once they “get on their feet” in the US. Most refugees come to the US with literally nothing except the debt of their travel.

There are eleven different VOLAGs that work directly with resettlement agencies in cities all over the United States to place refugees. These non-profit organizations are responsible for assimilating refugees into their new communities. If refugees already have family in a US city, they may request to be sent there. If not, then their final destination in the US will be chosen for them. In Austin, there are two resettlement agencies: RST (Refugee Services of Texas) and Caritas. These agencies are advocates for refugees and help in every aspect of resettlement, from housing to job training. Resettlement agencies are partially government contracted, but rely heavily on volunteers and community support. Volunteers are thought to cut their costs by about 25%. If the government was responsible for all aspects of resettlement, it is estimated that costs would double.

For each refugee that comes to the United States, there is a federally granted sum of money for the purpose of resettlement. This is called an R&P fund (reception and placement fund). This fund is designed to last anywhere from 30 to 90 days, and is supposed to cover all of the costs of “moving” and “getting settled in.” In January of 2010, the R&P fund was raised from $900 to $1,800. Of the $1,800, $1,125 is used directly by the refugee or used on their behalf (to set up apartments prior to arrival in the US). The remaining $675 pays costs within the resettlement agency like employee salaries and administration fees. In Austin the R&P fund only lasts 30 days (this varies between cities due to rent prices and cost of living). Austin has been ranked as the most expensive place to pay rent or buy a home in Texas, according to a study done by the D.C.-based Center for Housing Policy. The study concluded that “home ownership is unaffordable for many workers despite drops in house prices and low interest rates.” Austin also made the list of most expensive cities in the entire county, at 23^rd^, in a recent study done by Forbes. In expensive cities like Austin, the R&P fund doesn't go as far as it probably should. The resettlement agencies are responsible for case-management for the first 90 days, regardless of the city.

After the R&P fund is gone, some refugees are eligible for another federally funded sum of money called a “match grant.” This is usually the financial assistance that lasts for the 2^nd^, 3^rd^, and sometimes 4^th^ month that a refugee is here. This grant is part of a federal employment program and is only given to “employable” refugees. To be considered “employable” you must be of legal working age (over 18 and under 65) and be able to work (a new mother would not be considered “employable,” but her spouse would). Each household is only eligible for one match grant.

If, for some reason, a refugee is not eligible for the match grant, there is a state administered program called “refugee cash assistance.” The resettlement agency helps refugees apply for either of the financial supports, but the refugee must decide for themselves which assistance to apply for. In the long-term, some refugees are eligible for SSI (Supplemental Security Income), if they are disabled or over 65 years old. Proving disability, especially without any English or knowledge of the system here, is difficult. Some refugees with valid physical disabilities who couldget jobs if they spoke more English, do not qualify.

In order to receive their allotment of the R&P fund, resettlement agencies must provide “core” services within the first 30 days of a refugee's arrival. These services include medical screening and immunizations, referrals to English classes (provided by iACT – interfaith Action of Central Texas), and applying for a social security card. At RST the client to case-manager ratio is 75 to 1 per fiscal year. Amanda Posson, the Austin Area Director for RST, said that although the number of refugees at any given time fluctuates, case-managers can expect to have anywhere from 10 to 15 clients at a time.

![Caritas, one of the more visible agencies that provide case management and resettlement services][]

Caritas, one of the more visible agencies that provide case management and resettlement services

The First Months

The resettlement agencies pick up refugees from the airport, bring them to their new apartments and show them how to use them (running water, electricity, etc.). One of the very first things that case-managers do is help their clients apply for food stamps and Medicaid.

Refugees aren't allowed to work until they get their social security cards – this usually takes about three months. Until they are allowed to work, they are kind of in limbo. For the first three months, refugees spend a lot of time fulfilling the general demands of resettlement; doctors appointments, appointments with case-managers and English classes take up most of their time before they begin work.

Once they get their social security cards, refugees are expected to work and pay their own rent and expenses. Self-sufficiency. In an ideal situation, this three month adjustment period would be enough to get people on their feet. Realistically, however, three months is not enough time to learn English, get a job, and become completely self-reliant. For younger refugees who speak some English and are capable of physically demanding work, self-sufficiency usually happens fairly quickly. For older people that speak absolutely no English, have no education, and are physically unable to do demanding work, this goal is a little bit less attainable. Often times elderly refugees have children who can work and support them. In Seattle, several cases were reported where children dropped out of high school to start working so that they could support their parents. Research into similar situations in Austin hasn't been done.

The R&P fund secures case-management for the first three months while “match grant” and “refugee cash assistance” extends case-management for an additional six or eight months, respectively. After that, refugees are expected to reapply for food stamps and Medicaid on their own. Without the language skills to do so, many refugees end up going without benefits that they need.

Life in the US: Work

Every refugee has to get what is known as a “survival job.” Some of the refugees that come here were highly educated or trained in their home countries. I'm not talking dental hygienists and nurses, but doctors and engineers. Some even speak English fluently. But because benefits run out quickly and getting re-qualified in their fields here takes a long time (and can be costly – medical school), everyone has to get a shitty minimum wage job first. These jobs help refugees learn about the American work environment and American culture. Refugees are strongly encouraged to take the first job that they get no matter how inappropriate or unsuited it may be.

Refugees used to be able to get a variety of temp jobs and service jobs that paid OK, even when they first arrived. But the recession and unemployment has had an effect on refugee jobs. While Austin is lucky to have lower rates of unemployment than most of the country, it's still high: 7.4%. In June, the job market saw a rebound of 1.3% (the biggest “year-over-year gain” since November of 2008). Unlike the high paying software and technical jobs that Austin lost to the recession, the 10,100 jobs created were minimum-wage restaurant and hotel jobs. Couple that with Austin being the number one city that young people, ages 25-34, are moving to (according to a study done by the Brookings Institute), and refugees are finding themselves in direct competition with young Americans. Amanda Posson (RST) said that while jobs for refugees are abundant, they are low paying jobs. Working refugees generally make $8.80 per hour: well below a “living wage.”

This time period is really sink or swim. If refugees are unable to find or keep work, sometimes community members and religious congregations will step in to help. However, this is not a permanent solution. Some refugees are incapable of finding work due to lack of English skills, disabilities or emotional trauma. Many refugees suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Depression often accompanies this disorder. Curious as to whether refugees ever end up on the street, I contacted Mitchell Gibbs, Director of Development and Communication at Front Steps (an Austin homeless shelter). He told me that the homeless shelter often sees refugees at its door. Many, he said, do not have the English skills to even do a proper intake and most do not engage in the case-management that is available to them. Because of this, the shelter is unable to reserve beds for them and they are forced to shuffle between the shelter and the Salvation Army. Although the shelter doesn't keep data on the number of refugees that have been there, Gibbs said that it's easy to tell refugees apart from the other homeless, and that there are a lot more than just a few. Gibbs also mentioned that the homeless soccer league is seeing an influx of non-English speaking homeless players that are undoubtedly refugees. It is difficult, however, to make a distinction between refugees and immigrants without proper documentation. After a refugee has been in the United States for one year they are eligible for a status change to “lawful permanent resident,” after five years they are eligible for naturalization to US citizenship. If a person doesn't seek out case-management from a homeless shelter, determining their legal status in this country is impossible. The Front Steps program deals with 500-700 people a day and is seeing roughly 100 new people every month.

Clearly, we Americans aren't doing as well financially as we used to. I heard on the radio a while back that teenagers are having trouble finding a summer job before college because all of the positions that used to be available, like washing cars or working at McDonald's, are now being taken by adults that need the money. I guess it makes sense that if Americans are taking shittier jobs out of necessity, then any leftovers will be worse than they used to be. The problem is that refugees need jobs to support themselves right away, usually at the expense of their English, since it takes at least a year of regular English classes to get a real grasp on the language. One iACT student from Sudan recently got a job as a dishwasher in a high-volume kitchen. He said that the work was really hard and, because of the hours, he was no longer able to attend English classes. He had hopes of eventually studying at UT and playing soccer for them. Without learning fluent English, chances for better jobs in the future dwindle.

A Fighting Chance

So, the system has problems. Refugees aren't given enough time to get a real grasp on their future. Refugees on a federal level are all treated the same, while the cities in which they relocate to and individual circumstances are far from similar. Every agency involved with refugees is busting at the seams, and the entire system relies greatly on community support and volunteers. People are falling through the cracks. If it took me (somewhat literate, English speaking, car, cellphone, existent savings account) about a month to settle into a new city, how can a person from a different country, language group, and culture be expected to do so in a similar amount of time? Not only did I have advantages of citizenship and a little extra cash, but I lived like most young and poor people do: crammed in a tiny apartment with more people than is generally permitted by the complex. Recently, a previous iACT student who found work cleaning hotel rooms came back to school for a visit. He told us that he had an interview for a second job because he couldn't afford his rent with just one. He said his rent was $1,300 a month (although this may refer to his total monthly costs, including utilities, records indicated that his rent was around $800 a month). Refugees are at a real disadvantage because they're initially placed in apartments that will be hard to afford in the long run. The resettlement agencies can't lie to apartment complexes about the number of occupants the way that most young Americans will. Pair a big apartment with low paying jobs and it's hard to imagine any refugees really “making” it.

Two weeks ago, I went out for a friend's birthday. I walked to her house but decided to take a cab home because it was late. The taxi driver who picked me up had an accent I recognized. He told me that he was from Eritrea and had come to Austin as a refugee about 12 years ago. He was 15 when he arrived. His English was good, probably in part because he went to most of high school here in Austin. The cab he was driving was his own. I asked if he liked driving and he said, “it's OK.” While I think he's doing pretty well for himself and there's nothing wrong with being a cab driver, I wonder if that's what he had dreamt of growing up to be when he first arrived in “the land of opportunity.” Did he realize when he graduated high school that he'd have to support his parents, or that college wasn't an option? I wonder if there is really anything left here for people who came with nothing.

It's not that the United States shouldn't take these people, I think that we should always make a little room for people who need it. No matter how fucked things are here, where refugees are coming from is way worse. But is it fair to bring them here and not give them a real chance at a fresh start?

One thing is certain: refugees need our help! Here's how to get involved:

  • Casa Marianella is an emergency shelter for adult immigrants. It provides beds and meals for up to 35 people at a time. Casa Marianella serves people escaping persecution from all of Latin America, Nepal, and Africa. Recently, it's been an important first place for people seeking asylee status to stay while their cases are being reviewed. To help out email:
  • The Multicultural Refugee Coalition's goal is to “empower refugees towards self-sufficiency through education, community, and reconciliation.” They are always looking for people to help. Contact them at:
  • Center for Survivors of Torture has both a Dallas and Austin site. This non-profit does about everything under the sun for survivors of torture and can match volunteers based on their skills. To volunteer, contact Samantha at:
  • Interfaith Action of Central Texas teaches English to refugees. iACT is always looking for volunteer teachers, teacher assistants, and much more. To get involved contact Desaree at:
  • Refugee Services of Texas is a resettlement agency responsible for all aspects of case-management and resettlement. To volunteer contact Emily at:
  • Caritas is a refugee resettlement agency. They also help the homeless and work with low-income families. To get involved with them contact Molly at:
  • Austin Refugee Roundtable has a website where people can see updates and current events pertaining to refugees in Austin. Check it out at:

[Caritas, one of the more visible agencies that provide case management and resettlement services]: "Caritas, one of the more visible agencies that provide case management and resettlement services"


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