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Story Publication logo July 14, 2009

What It's Like to be a Refugee in America


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When Bill Clinton Hadam's refugee family was approved for resettlement in the U.S., the boy's...

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Bill Clinton Hadam. Image by Mary Wiltenburg.

Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.

"Are the kids dead?" Hassan Mwanasumpikwa joked with his wife in the last hour of their trip. As they left the Atlanta airport in the dark, he tried to shake sons Bill Clinton Hadam, age 7, and Igey Muzeleya, 5, awake for a glimpse of the city.

Nine days before, on Oct. 16, 2006, the refugees had learned they were going to America. After a 10-year wait, the Congolese-Rwandan family had hours to pack for the 8,000-mile journey. In the next few days, there were many firsts: English phrases, flush toilets, airplane flights.

After a whirlwind orientation, they flew from Tanzania to Kenya, New York, and Atlanta. There, a fellow passenger guided them through a maze of trains and escalators to the baggage claim, where a resettlement caseworker was waiting for them.

Now, the boys lay on their parents' laps in matching USA T-shirts, too exhausted to think of the refugee camp, or the sister, they'd left behind – or to take in the headlights snaking past as the car merged onto the highway, heading north toward their new life.

This is a dream most of the world's refugees will never realize. America takes in more of these vulnerable people than any other country. But this year, as the US resettles an expected 75,000, 13.6 million others worldwide are living under or seeking United Nations protection. Sixty percent have waited a decade or more for permanent homes.

Pick a conflict today – Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan – or reach back to Bosnia or Vietnam: In our globalized world, every war eventually shows up on America's doorstep as kids like Bill and Igey. Their experience, and those of friends and neighbors on both sides of the Atlantic, is a window on the nation's refugee program.

A cornerstone of US foreign policy since the Carter administration, the resettlement program draws universal praise for its lifesaving generosity. But since 1980, it has been no politician's top priority and has gone without major reform. And in today's economy, the minimally funded program is failing many of those it rescues. Without a basic cultural foundation and language skills, some refugees who arrived in the US eager to build a life are ending up on the streets. Some are even returning to the war zones they fled, in desperate search of livelihoods.

"A crisis [is] unfolding on our own doorstep," says Bob Carey, vice president of resettlement for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), whose caseworkers will welcome and find housing for more than 10,000 new arrivals this year. "The system is fundamentally broken."

• • •

The apartment where their caseworker dropped Bill, Igey, and their parents, had the basics: beds, table, couch, apples, tomatoes, and a rotisserie chicken in the fridge. Igey had never seen an apple; he tried to eat one, but fell asleep halfway through. The family would have slept all the next day, but World Relief, the evangelical agency responsible for their reception and placement, picked them up for paperwork and shots. Soon they had Social Security cards, the boys were enrolled in kindergarten and first grade, and their parents were job-hunting.

World Relief and IRC are two of 10 voluntary agencies, mostly religious, under contract with the US State Department. Their job is to meet arriving refugees, who've been vetted overseas by the UN and the US Department of Homeland Security, and get them started in places like Atlanta, Phoenix, and Minneapolis.

Funded according to the volume of refugees they resettle, these agencies get $900 per head to cover administrative costs plus a refugee's first three months in America: food, clothes, furniture, housing deposit, and rent. The agencies raise funds and distribute donated goods, and provide many refugees with help finding jobs, learning English, and accessing medical care, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services – and states sometimes chip in public assistance. But eight months after arrival, refugees are on their own and newcomers are lined up behind them, just as wasted and lost.

BEFORE THEY'D SLEPT OFF THE JET LAG, Hassan and family began venturing out of their apartment, looking for someone who spoke French, Swahili, Lingala, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, or anything else they could decipher. Igey, the littlest, made friends first: Two Colombian brothers invited him over and gave him a toy truck to play with, not caring that they shared no common language.

Dawami Lenguyanga, the boys' mother, layered each son in two pairs of pants and three shirts.

"Cold! We'd never seen cold like this," she remembers of the 50-degree F. averages that month.

The three-day orientation the family had gotten in Tanzania from the International Organization for Migration hadn't lingered on weather. It had left them with a sense that America was a place of calamity where you couldn't always count on your neighbors. Dawami and Hassan had practiced shouting into phones: "Hello? I need ambulance! Hello?" and "Fire! Fire! Fire!"

Looking back, they say, it was the first clue that their new home might not be everything they'd envisioned. "US is big country in Africa," says Hassan. "When you say you go to America, it's like paradise."

• • •

Hassan and Dawami quickly got jobs: him gutting chickens at a poultry plant, her at a farmers' market.

But today, refugees entering the job market are one of the biggest casualties of the economic collapse. In Phoenix, a major resettlement center, 80 percent of refugees were employed and self-supporting within four months of their arrival in 2007. Now, only 10 percent are.
It's a similar scene here in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, an enclave of resettled refugees from more than 50 countries. On a cold February morning, Bhutanese refugee Bhanu Dhakal waited in line with 60 other refugees at the farmers' market where Dawami got her first job. After two hours, he learned that there was no work, even for an experienced high school English teacher like him. For four months, he'd been hunting, willing to take any job. He and his wife were amazed: "This is not what we expected in America."

• • •

Refugees founded this country, though they weren't called that then. For most of its history, the US made no distinction between those coming because of political or religious oppression and those coming for economic reasons. On arrival, it was every man for himself.

After the Nazi Holocaust, the US and UN began to write into law their commitments to help people made stateless by persecution. Over the next decades, the US admitted waves of refugees to whom it felt a responsibility: Cubans, Russian Jews, Vietnamese. With the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980, President Jimmy Carter formalized America's refugee program and made it more politically and geographically evenhanded. Since then, the country has resettled 2.7 million refugees – the most diverse cross-section of cultures, languages, educational experiences, and needs, that any nation takes in.

"We're extremely proud [of that openness]. It follows from a long historical tradition," says Elizabeth Campbell, director of the Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 25 nonprofits. "But keep in mind, the strength of the US program is also its weakness."

Embracing an ever-more-diverse influx of refugees – from the Burmese rice farmer to the Iraqi accountant – has overwhelmed the one-size-fits-all system, as well as the funding supporting it, say those across the country involved in resettlement.

"Right now, we know there are huge problems facing refugees who resettle here because of the increase in unemployment and cutbacks in government services," says Tim Riesser, a foreign-policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. While little hard data has been collected on how many refugees are falling through the cracks, resettlement agencies see a growing number who are unemployed and unable to pay rent.

"They get help," says Mr. Riesser, "but they're facing so many obstacles: unfamiliarity with the culture and don't know the language, many don't have job skills, [and] in a time of real economic downturn, they're among those who suffer most."

A State Department reauthorization bill, passed by the House last month and awaiting Senate approval, would provide job training, English classes, and cultural orientation to refugees before resettlement, and permit some families to bring with them children they have informally adopted. And the State Department gave an emergency $5 million grant in June to help resettlement agencies forestall refugee homelessness.

But critics say such piecemeal changes won't fix larger flaws: The program is uneven state to state and inflexible in its emphasis on getting all refugees work in entry-level jobs – even when that's a waste of their professional and educational experience or impractical because of trauma or widowhood, or impossible given the economy.

• • •

There's no sign that the Obama administration plans a major revision of resettlement policy in the near term, and the issue isn't on the Congressional agenda. Key agencies – State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) – are in a holding pattern until administration appointees are in place.

What could change is funding. Over $1 billion is budgeted federally for resettlement (about $14,000 per refugee). But since the program's founding, funding hasn't kept pace with the cost of living – the length of assistance to new arrivals has shrunk: from 24 months three decades ago to a maximum of eight today.

Citing the failing economy and the growing number of refugees unable to find jobs, ORR asked Congress for a $40 million increase in 2010.

Refugee resettlement is a tiny program in the grand scheme of Washington. It has no real opponents, but advocates all have higher priorities and the refugees themselves have no political clout.

It's widely agreed that the program's funding is due for a radical increase, says a congressional aide who works on refugee issues. The Obama administration is considering the problem, adds the staffer, especially the hardships facing Afghan and Iraqi refugees whose work with the US military forced them to flee their homes. But in this economy, how any politician will weigh the moral and political costs against the financial one is still a question.

Some Iraqi refugees are so frantic now for work that they're returning to the war as interpreters. "It's a staggering situation," says Mr. Carey. "In the 30 years I've worked with refugees, I've never heard of a situation where refugees are considering going back to a war zone."

• • •

Things didn't go well for Dawami and Hassan after their early months in the US. Long hours working in a fish freezer left Dawami so sick she had to quit her job; it was a year before she found another, on Georgia State University's custodial staff. Bill and Igey came home from school crying. They struggled to learn English, or anything at all.

The family owed the US more than $4,000 for the plane tickets that had brought them here. Food was scarce. Roaches overtook the apartment. And day and night, their phone rang: friends and relatives calling from Africa, asking for help.

Last year, the US, Canada, and Australia, three countries founded by immigrants, took in 92 percent of the world's resettled refugees.

A few thousand others went to Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. Their reception varies according to cultural priorities: The US wants people working quickly, while Denmark favors an easing-in period during which it provides social services and helps facilitate Danish-language instruction. [Editor's note: An earlier version mischaracterized Denmark's approach to integrating refugees.]

Refugee families often have a much harder time than immigrants by choice do in living up to the myth of American self-invention.

"There's an expectation that an immigrant will be able to hit the ground running," says Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for the international nonprofit Human Rights Watch. "For refugees it's often the opposite: They're picked because of their vulnerability."

Dawami and Hassan had plenty going against them. She was a Rwandan Tutsi, he a Congolese Banyamulenge: both groups targeted by local death squads. Each had dropped out of high school, and seen family tortured or killed. From their "mixed marriage," Bill and Igey were born into a perfect storm of vulnerability.

And the threats didn't end at the border. The UN placed the family in Mkugwa, a "protection camp" in northwestern Tanzania. There, at 13, Dawami's daughter from a previous marriage, Neema John, was raped by older teenagers. Consumed with shame and fear, Neema fled the camp. The day her family received their US visas, they had to make the hurried, painful choice to leave without her. Dawami had been a refugee for 33 of her 38 years.

• • •

Who are refugees? The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, which the US signed, says: People outside their home countries who can't return due to "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." ("Asylum seekers" have the same fear of persecution, but are already living in the countries to which they apply for protection.) This wording applies to many desperate people today, from the thousands of Sudanese streaming out of Darfur to the 2 million Iraqis forced from their country by the US war to 3 million Afghans still homeless 29 years after that nation's previous war.

Over time, though, the definition has become problematic. Each year, millions around the world flee wars that devastate their lands and decimate their people, but don't count as targeted persecution. Tens of millions more are "economic migrants," uprooted by lack of livelihood.

Many others, like those now escaping Pakistan's Swat Valley or lying low in Iraqi villages or Congolese squatter camps, don't run across borders, which makes them "internally displaced persons," not refugees. So those UN-documented refugees the international community is already scrambling to help are just the tip of the iceberg.

"The world is doing a fantastic job of producing refugees and internally displaced people," says Yacoub el Hilo, director of the Tanzania branch of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handled Hassan and Dawami's case. The UNHCR was established 59 years ago with a three-year global mandate. Founders imagined it would quickly become unnecessary. Instead, in 2003, it was made permanent.

"So how are we doing as a world?" Mr. el Hilo asks. "[V]ery badly."

• • •

The gregarious Hassan and fearless Dawami left behind many friends in Tanzania. Their camp closed in 2007, part of a government effort to rid the country of refugees. But many acquaintances still languish in nearby camps, nursing American dreams. As they do, their kids are falling behind. This April, in Kanembwa resettlement camp in northwestern Tanzania, many of Hassan's Congolese friends expressed outrage that schools there have been closed for over a year, and informal teaching is forbidden. (Schools were shuttered to prepare for the camp closing, expected this summer.) It pains former high school math teacher Pierre Lokombe, particularly: "Our kids have nothing to do. And this affects their psychology, don't you think?"

Dawami's daughter, Neema, learned that the hard way. Then, in 2006, she returned to the camp with her infant, looking for her family. Neighbors helped her call her parents in Atlanta. Now the family is racing the clock to be reunited with her. When she turns 21 in September, the chances of her and her 4-year-old son joining their family in Georgia will evaporate.

Families rarely emerge intact from war and trauma. Dawami lost a first husband to murder, and a stepson, Fidelis, in a running mob as she and Neema fled Rwanda. He could still be alive; she doesn't know. Hassan left three kids behind when he escaped a Congolese prison and ran for his life. Now he sends them money, and wonders if he'll see them again.

Often, inadvertently, resettlement does further damage. Qualifying interviews with UN and US officials can take years. Births and weddings that happen meantime aren't always factored into who gets visas.

The UNHCR, the International Red Cross, and the US State Department all work to reunify divided families. But the issue is complex. Last October, the State Department shut down one of two avenues to reunification after DNA tests on 3,000 African applicants confirmed fewer then 20 percent of the family relationships they claimed.

Cultural disconnects account for some of the disparity: Informal adoptions are common throughout the developing world, especially in populations ravaged by war. Until the bill legitimizing such families passes the Senate, those approved for resettlement must leave these children behind. Other unmatched DNA cases were the result of rapes or affairs mothers had not disclosed. Criminal gangs may have swelled the numbers, too, by forcing or paying families to sign up nonrelatives.

At the same time, deliberate fraud is common among those applying to immigrate. People will say anything to get to the States – lies that can mask motives as benign as economic self-improvement and as sinister as terrorism. So officials are hypervigilant in scouring stories for inconsistencies.

This degree of scrutiny can be hell on people who – across language and cultural barriers and the imperfections of human memory – are trying to tell the truth.

In dark moments, as Dawami has worked and prayed for reunion with her daughter, she has looked back longingly on those early years in the camp. True, she says, food was scarce, her family sick, the schools marginal, and women and girls in constant danger. But at least they were together.

• • •

Today, tired as they are, Dawami and Hassan are hopeful. US immigration is considering Neema's case. Hassan is a US taxpayer who has contributed $7,000 to Social Security. Dawami gets rave reviews from supervisors, and her English is improving. In a new school – the International Community School – Bill is reading and Igey is doing math at grade level.

Now, others from Mkugwa camp are resettling in Atlanta. With refugee agencies overwhelmed, Hassan and Dawami are stepping in where they can: driving those without cars to the store, helping the illiterate with paperwork. Often, in their rocky first years, more experienced refugees helped them out. Now, green cards in hand, the new permanent residents have come far enough to start giving back.

No, they say, America is not the paradise they imagined from their mud-brick house in the refugee camp. They live in the same roach-infested apartment where their caseworker dropped them in 2006. They struggle with chronic health problems. Money is tight. Both parents work nights, so the boys put themselves to bed.

But already, they can look back on those early days and laugh: at how lost they got in the airport, and how little they imagined what lay ahead.


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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