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Re: “Still Seeking Refuge

I felt a gnawing sensation in my stomach while I was reading this story. Last summer, I volunteered as a mentor with the International Rescue Committee, and they matched me up with a recently-arrived Burmese immigrant, living with members of his family and other friends. I won’t identify him, but in looking at the picture accompanying the article I’m almost positive he lived in the exact same apartment complex, and he probably knows everyone mentioned in this story very well.

From the start, it felt like an impossible situation. He had the advantage of at least speaking rudimentary English, and there was also a young child in the house who spoke very good English from being in school and had also acquired computer skills to boot. But other than that, the apartments were full of people who spoke almost no English and whose professional skills consisted of rice farming and doing manual labor in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries before making to the U.S.

The thing that the article doesn’t shed light on is just how complex and multifaceted the wall of indifference facing newly-arrived refugees is. Obviously, the robbers picking on the newly-arrived refugees, as well as the classless commenter above, exemplify the extreme end of the hostility that these people face. But equally formidable are the layers of benign and not-so-benign neglect that envelope refugees as soon as they land here.

The IRC, along with other refugee assistance organizations, signifies this in some ways. I do not say that in any way want to bash the organization. Everyone at that office was very kind, very well-intentioned, and dedicated to their cause, and I’ve also come in contact with the organization’s work in the Shimelba refugee camp in Ethiopia. But we have to be honest with the fact that the organization, along with other such organizations, is simply not equipped to handle the sheer number of cases such as these. The article mentioned refugees from Iraq and Bhutan being more educated and able to adjust quicker, but the majority of the refugees arriving in the Bay Area are Burmese who, like the people I encountered and described above, spoke no English and had very little formal education. And left unsaid in the article is the fact that a large portion of them do not even have access to the IRC’s employment program. This was something I didn’t even know until I contacted an IRC staff member, flustered as to what I should do, and he told me (for the first time) that the people I was helping weren’t in the IRC’s employment program; they were placed with the group Catholic Charities, who mainly helped with transportation money.

For refugees not in the employment program, the IRC put them in the hands of volunteers such as myself – idealistic, well-meaning people who were helping them without much training and assistance from the staff, who would presumably take them around and hope to connect them with something. Given that I myself was unemployed at that point, I wasn’t exactly a fountain of knowledge for finding work. I tried to coax the man I was working with to go looking in different areas, but he had already been robbed twice and wouldn’t go anywhere that would involve catching a bus or walking home after dark. Moreover, the language barrier was significant, and every week I would make an appointment to meet him and help him find jobs, only to have him not show up. After weeks of such events, I contacted the IRC and they said that they would match me up with other people who were clamoring for help – and then they promptly stopped responding to my e-mails or calls. I never heard from them again. They told me before that they were grateful for my help, and presumably still needed it judging from what was said in this article, so I was a bit shocked that they would brush off a willing volunteer. But as I said, I don’t think they were being spiteful; it was simply a case of an underfunded nonprofit that was working with a skeleton crew, mostly consisting of young twenty-something volunteers with varying standards of professionalism. Even the most dedicated staffers, working for little-to-no pay, can’t keep up with the case load. So obviously volunteers get lost in the shuffle. But what about the refugees themselves, since the volunteers are the only people actually helping them find jobs and find their way around their new home?

The real stomach-churning issue is that these nonprofits are they only places that refugees can turn to. Look at the numbers in the article: $800 a month in cash assistance for a family of four? This is a sick joke, right? No, actually it’s not. $345 in refugee cash assistance? Please. And yet even that is too much for the anti-immigrant troglodytes like “sparkle.” So because of such political pressure, and even more so now with so many programs being bled on the alter of “no big government,” the U.S. government simply dumps refugees with the IRC and other nonprofits, who in turn receive crumbs to assist them with learning English, filling out police reports, find jobs in the worst economy since the Great Depression, and trying to keep them happy and sane enough so that they don’t wonder why they left the purgatory of the camps in Thailand, Nepal, Ethiopia or wherever else it was that they were warehoused. Look it up online: states like Iowa have agencies that are simply ending programs for lack of funds. What would you do? In a country where you don’t speak the language, don’t have a job, and are dealing with all manner of traumas from your long circuitous route here, and all of a sudden the understaffed, penniless nonprofit that was nonetheless your lifeline closes down. What the hell would you do?

So in the end, the economy matters, crime and cultural linguistic barriers matter, and the struggles that any immigrant faces upon arrival in the U.S. are well-documented and formidable. But no matter how many well-meaning volunteers and nonprofits there are, the frightening truth is that after a few months, these people find themselves still not able to learn the language, still not able to find a decent job and a safe place to live, and with no help from a government that would rather lavish taxpayer money on Goldman Sachs and AIG. We find these people in the refugee camps, lure them here with all the promise and renewal associated with the American dream, and then, like so many others, shunt them off to the crumbling street corners of inner-cities and forget about them.

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Posted by Justin_Berkeley on 02/19/2010 at 12:20 AM

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