Thursday, December 25, 2008

Recession Hits Refugees Hard

The US takes in about 60 thousand refugees a year. When they arrive, they get assistance for several months. In the past, that’s generally been enough to tide them over until they find work. But with the economy in recession, some refugees are weeks away from having no job and no way to pay rent. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Jon Greenberg reports.

Bhima and Lakshu Acharya and their three children came to Concord five months ago. Ethnically Nepalese, Bhima and Lakshu were born in Bhutan, a small Himalayan country squeezed in between India and China. 18 years ago, the Bhutanese government forced many ethnic Nepalese to leave. Bhima and Lakshu have spent most of their adult lives living in refugee camps in Nepal. They could neither work in Nepal nor go back to Bhutan.

A local resettlement volunteer, Doug Hall, takes me to their spartan apartment.

CUT: Jon, this is Bhima//Hello// Hello// sound of door, room sounds

The sweet aroma of Indian spices hangs in the air. The local resettlement agency, Lutheran Social Services, provided furniture and clothes. A mix of federal funds and charitable donations covers the cost of rent and food. Lakshu Acharya says that will soon end.

CUT: Lakshu - Nepali - fade under

Doug Hall translates.

CUT: Doug: beginning Jan 1 they will be responsible for paying the house rent. and what he said was, without a job, how am I possibly going to be able to pay the rent?

Lakshu and his wife have applied at dozens of companies. In the time they’ve been here, he has worked only three days for a small manufacturer. Some of their fellow Bhutanese have found temporary Christmas jobs at retailers like Target but that income will end in January.

The very first Bhutanese refugees to arrive in this country came to New Hampshire. All told, about 40 households. Many of them are in similar circumstances as the Acharya’s.

CUT I would say we have 12-15 families that we’re tracking closely right now.

Amy Marchildon oversees refugee resettlement at Lutheran Social Services. To have a third of her clients without stable income after six months is something she’s never seen before. LSS has no money to continue paying their rent but Marchildon remains hopeful that a special appeal to local congregations and others will bear fruit.

CUT We would depend on the generosity of donors//JG: And if those donors don’t materialize?//Then the refugees in that situation would be just like anybody else in the community who might be in that situation.//JG: Homeless.// Possibly.

A common path for a refugee in America is a few months of assistance followed by a job with modest wages and a hard scrabble to more secure economic footing. Historically, according to government figures, about 70% succeed. The recession is causing many to falter on the way. Livinia Limon is the president of the nonprofit U-S Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

CUT: We hear anecdotally of refugees being evicted. We’ve not seen it whole scale [sic] yet.

Limon works with many of the local organizations that help refugees in hundreds of communities across the country. Limon says that those groups are scrambling.

CUT: I know that all the agencies that are doing this, are spending lots of money. We’re spending money that we don’t really have, it’s a hedge against disaster. But having a family homeless is a bigger disaster than my balance sheet right now.

Resettlement advocates say federal aid has long fallen short of what’s needed. Local charities try to fill the gap but in a tough economy, that resource is stretched thin. Advocates do not want to see refugees end up on public assistance. They say, at the very least, Washington could provide some extra dollars to help with current crunch.

David Siegel directs the federal office of refugee resettlement. Siegel says right now, he has no more money. He says his hands are tied by a continuing budget resolution that limits spending at last year’s level. But Siegel holds out hope.

CUT: When we have a final budget for 09. If you invited me back, I’d probably give you a different answer. Until that time, the answer is, we do not have any.

There is a common refrain in the resettlement community. As difficult as things might be here, they are infinitely better than life in a refugee camp. Most refugees seem to agree. But not all.

In the parking lot outside their apartment, Lakshu and Bhima Acharya talk about their situation. Lakshu says he would rather be here without a job than in a camp without a future. But Bhima thinks her friends back in the refugee camps ought to stay there until the economy improves.

CUT: Bhima – Nepali – fade under

This time, a Bhutanese neighbor translates.

CUT: She’s not going to tell them to come here. The rent bill to pay, the electric bills, the winter season and children, seeing all this, she cannot say to others to come because they might also face difficulties in later days.

This might be a minority view but it speaks to the uncertainty all these refugees feel as they approach the moment when, in a totally unfamiliar land, they will have no means to provide for themselves and their children.

For NHPR News, I’m Jon Greenberg

1 comment:

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