Monday, September 15, 2008

Uncertain refuge - Funding cuts jeopardize services to growing influx of refugees



(Left) Shyam and Rupa Rai are refugees that recently moved to Erie from Bhutan. The couple live on Erie's eastside with two of their sons, John Rai, 25, and Amos Rai, 23. (Janet B. Campbell / Erie Times-News)
After living for 16 years without grocery stores, refrigerators or phones, the Rai family found their new East 23rd Street apartment a bit foreign.

There was the heating system they had never seen.

And the locking front door.

"Two times we are already locked (out) here because our parents do not know how to use things," said John Rai, 25.

For their apartment -- as well as the English as a Second Language classes they attend, and the shiny new sneakers that John Rai bought at Walmart -- the Rai family can thank the International Institute of Erie, a resettlement agency that helps refugees intensively during their first six months in the area.

The apartment is about twice as big as the mud-and-bamboo hut the family occupied in a Nepalese refugee camp.

But John Rai's parents, Shyam Rai, 65, and Rupa Raini, 63, have yet to learn English or find jobs.

And starting Oct. 1, cuts in funding for social services to assist refugees after the first six months of resettlement funding ends, which might leave some refugees' needs unmet.

Social programs statewide have suffered cuts for the coming budget cycle.

But refugees in Erie may be facing a particular crunch.

Funding for the year starting Oct. 1 is based on the low numbers of refugees who came to Pennsylvania between October 2004 and October 2007, state refugee coordinator Norm-Anne Rothermel said.

In the year since, however, the number arriving in Erie has doubled to more than 300.

On Thursday, the Legislature allocated $350,000 to help fill the gap, restoring funding to 2007's level, Rothermel said. A $300,000 shortfall remains because a new refugee service agency in Philadelphia now shares in the funding.

Before the cuts, Erie County's three refugee agencies had big plans for working together.

The International Institute works with refugees in their first six months here. The Hispanic American Council provides social services for years after they arrive. Catholic Charities does both.

Since the beginning of 2008, they have met jointly to come up with a self-sufficiency plan for each family, said Joel Tuzynski, executive director of Hispanic American Council.

Funding for a certified counselor and a medical advocate began in April, he said.

But by May, a 10 percent funding cut put the cooperative effort's future in jeopardy.

Tuzynski had envisioned sharing resources such as driving simulators and financial-management classes. A shuttle could transport refugees between different agencies, and even to their jobs.

But those ideas could now be moot, leaving Erie's increasing numbers of refugees with fewer options.

Funding allocations will be announced in letters mailed this week, Rothermel said.

Tuzynski is waiting.

Refugees from Bhutan like the Rai family are the third-largest group arriving in Erie, according to numbers provided by John Flanagan, director of the International Institute. Nearly 70 have come to Erie since October 2006.

Although John Rai has been in the U.S. only since July, he already looks like any other American 25-year-old, from his short black hair tousled with gel to his sneakers.

When his family left for a refugee camp in Nepal in 1992, John Rai was 8 and attending school in India. Within a couple of years, he joined them in the camp because his parents could not pay for his education.

The Bhutanese government expelled many ethnic Nepali families like the Rais in a drive to "purify" the country, John Rai said.

For decades beforehand, his parents had suffered doubly because they are also Christian.

Bhutanese police raided house churches on Christmas. Shyam Rai was repeatedly summoned to the mayor's office and forced to stand against a wall for hours.

"We can't say with our head lifted up that we're Christian in our country," John Rai said. "Sometimes we have to tell lies. We have to hide it."

Shyam Rai and Rupa Raini, both pastors, raised their three sons in the faith. John Rai sprinkles the phrase "by the grace of God" into everyday conversation. He started teaching Sunday school at age 12 and preaching at age 16.

He studied theology in college and graduate school in India. He relied on scholarships, help from friends and income from preaching to pay the bills.

"I didn't eat, and I didn't buy new clothes, but I used my money to buy books," he said.

He left 40 of those books behind in the refugee camp.

On a desk the International Institute gave him, he keeps a small stack of books that he brought, as well as a Longman Dictionary of American English from the International Institute and a stack of Bibles from Crossroads Community Baptist Church.

The Bibles, he said, are to give to other refugees. While his parents don't know enough English to be pastors here, John Rai has already found employment at Crossroads doing community outreach.

After growing up in a refugee camp, he said, a desire to help others motivates him.

"God has given me that privilege and responsibility to follow his path. I am in the right track, I believe," he said, putting his hand on his chest.

"I have died many times, but God helped me resurrect."

REBECCA HARRIS can be reached at 870-1739 or by e-mail.

Refugees In Erie And The U.S., By The Numbers
  • 50,000: Number of refugees who come to the U.S. each year.

  • 60,000: Number of Bhutanese refugees U.S. has pledged to accept by October 2012.

  • 5,000: Number of Bhutanese refugees who have arrived in the U.S. in the past 12 months.

  • 69: Number of Bhutanese refugees who have settled in Erie since October 2006.
SOURCES: Ben Sanders, spokesman for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; John Flanagan, director, International Institute of Erie.

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