Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Refugees in Dallas struggle to find their place as jobs dry up

Source: The Dallas Morning News

A Bhutanese refugee died recently in his Vickery Meadow apartment in Dallas, within walking distance of Lal Subba's home. The family had no money for a burial, so Subba and the other Bhutanese families in the complex took up a collection to ensure the elderly man received appropriate honor for the life he led.

"If we live, too much difficult. If we die, too much difficult," said the 21-year-old who grew up in a Nepal refugee camp and came to Dallas in October, only to find a flailing national economy instead of the idealized American dream.

That reality is now hitting Texas, where laid-off workers and legal – and illegal – immigrants are vying for a declining number of jobs in blue-collar industries.

This leaves even fewer opportunities for Dallas' expanding refugee population – people from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bhutan and Iraq who already struggle to find employment and housing with limited language skills, no support network and only a basic understanding of American culture.

The release of President Barack Obama's federal budget on Thursday outlined a nearly 10 percent increase, to $51.7 billion, in funding for international development and diplomacy. That has further ignited debate over the nation's ethical and political responsibilities to those who can no longer claim a homeland – and whether the refugee stream should be trimmed.

Refugees, unlike immigrants, leave their home country not by choice but out of fear of persecution. The Iraqis – the most educated of the three major groups currently coming into the U.S. – are a prime example. They have left their lives as lawyers, doctors and professors for political reasons and have been designated refugees by the United Nations.

The U.S. president determines how many refugees to accept annually. Last year, former President George W. Bush authorized a cap of 80,000 refugees for 2009; the actual number of arrivals is usually less.

"The way the program is set up, we are bringing people in but leaving them high and dry," said Anne Richard, the International Rescue Committee's vice president of government relations and advocacy, who believes the financial crisis has threatened the resettlement process. And the increased allotment may not salvage it, she said, as the money could end up going to other State Department programs when details are announced in April.

Texas has suffered less than its Midwestern counterparts and has no plans to slow its refugee influx. It took in a little more than 5,000 refugees last year, an increase of almost 800 from 2007. Texas generally places in the top four states for the number of refugees it accepts annually from the federal government.

"We are at the beginning stages of feeling the impact in Texas," said Caitriona Lyons, the state's refugee program coordinator. She said it's now taking longer than a month to place refugees in jobs, thwarting the adjustment process and lessening their ability to become self-sufficient.

Subba is one of more than 1,000 refugees who arrived in Dallas as the nation began its financial nose dive. A teacher by trade, he found a part-time job as a dishwasher after three months of searching. He makes $64 a day, sometimes working only one day a week. That barely covers the $555 in rent and utilities each month for himself and his mother. Food stamps leave enough for rice and vegetables. They choose sweaters over heat.

The $445 he receives monthly from the International Rescue Committee will trickle to $187 next month and stop in July, along with the Medicaid for his sick mother.

"I see people under the bridge and I think, 'Will that be me?' " he said in the halting English he learned in the camp. His Nepali ancestry put him at risk in Bhutan, and his refugee status left him shunned in Nepal.

"We are in the right place at the wrong time. This is a good country, but when we arrive here, it's too much difficult to get a job for all people, not just us."

About 60,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. last year – 8,000 more than in 2007. The number is expected to grow in 2009.

The State Department provides each refugee a $900 initial resettlement grant, intended to cover expenses for the first 30 days after arrival. About half goes to the overseeing agency for case management, travel and other logistics.

The solution is not to decrease the flow of refugees but to overhaul the entire system during the new administration, said Lavinia Limón, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the former head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Clinton administration. She wants more resources channeled toward housing assistance as well as programs that focus on the increasingly diverse pool of refugees entering the United States.

"This is a decision to rescue people in extraordinarily dire circumstances," she said, citing the nation's longstanding history of moral obligation.

The U.S. took in more than 90,000 refugees in the early 1980s when the economy teetered just as precariously as now, she said.

But Limón worries that the resettlement process will remain on the back burner with a housing crisis to solve and pending confirmation of a new secretary of health and human services.

The stimulus package will affect refugees the same way it does lower-income Americans, but that still won't significantly help them, said Debi Wheeler, the IRC's regional director in Dallas. The search for jobs and housing is compounded by a culture shock that includes anything from buying a DART ticket to learning how to tell the difference between a $1 bill and a $20 bill.

"There is just not enough money for what we are required to do, and the recession is bringing to light the challenges that are faced by these programs," she said.

"Imagine finding an apartment in America for one person, and we are looking for hundreds."

Area caseworkers say it's even more difficult to find employment for refugees. Last May, IRC job developer Jim Stokes placed 11 to 12 people a week in positions. Now, he hopes for two to three a week.

Dallas hosts three federally funded refugee agencies: IRC, Catholic Charities and Refugee Services of Texas. From the $6.2 million allocated through the state, a little more than $1.6 million will go to Dallas this year. The agencies lobby for funding from the state government.

Roy Beck of NumbersUSA said refugees are too dependent on that money. The executive director of the immigration-reduction group based in Arlington, Va., argues that a decrease in foreign workers is critical to restoring the economy.

"Bringing in any new working-age adults during this time really makes no sense," he said. "Unemployed Americans, including a growing number of refugees already here, need jobs. Why bring anybody in unless there really is no choice?"

Paw Htoo didn't feel there was a choice when she left her bamboo hut in a Thai refugee camp and brought her mother, 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to Dallas in August.

An American flag now hangs on one side of their cramped Vickery Meadow apartment. A Karen flag with the same colors is tacked on the other. A mattress in the corner serves as a makeshift bedroom for the six people who occupy the apartment's three rooms.

The Karen are one of Myanmar's ethnic minorities persecuted by the military government for their heritage, some for their Christian beliefs. The Burmese family fled to the Thai border soon after Htoo's mentally disabled uncle was arrested.

Htoo's daughter, who sings and dances the ABCs next to her mother, was born a "stateless citizen" in the camps. Once inside, they weren't allowed to leave.

It takes Htoo, 25, an hour and a half to get to her job packaging meat at Tyson Foods in Sherman, where she makes $11.05 an hour four days a week. She pays $150 a month for transportation.

Her increasingly Americanized children ask for pizza and fried chicken, indulgences she said she can't afford. Her 17-year old brother works weekends at a florist to help with the rent and begin to pay IRC back for the plane tickets.

Now that Htoo is working, the $440 in food stamps for herself and her children has dropped to $150.

On a recent morning, mustard greens peeked out of a pot on the stove. Htoo, wearing a vivid purple Karen sarong, had several hours before her trek to Sherman. She looked at the wall that her daughter had turned into her own drawing board and smiled.

"We are still so surprised by this," she said, rubbing her feet on the carpet. "I started work, and I feel OK."

Her daughter spelled her name in the background – in English.

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