Refugee Resettlement Is Getting Harder

December 1, 2004       Tom Pope      

They are just 28 of the more than 1.4 million people estimated by the United Nations to have been driven from their homes because of civil war in the Republic of the Sudan. It’s a war that has claimed between 50,000 and 70,000 lives.

Jackson, Miss., is a long way from home. But the youngsters who arrived earlier this year were escaping much of the same fate of Loc Nguyen, who in 1975 at age 29 fled Saigon as the city was falling to the North Vietnamese. Nguyen was helped in Los Angeles by the Catholic Charities resettlement program. Such programs can have dramatic success stories, like that of Nguyen, although they face obstacles of funding and community support that threatens effectiveness.

Nguyen arrived by himself to one camp, leaving behind parents and 11 siblings. “I was a war correspondent and knew it would be very dangerous if I stayed,” he said. “I didn’t know my family was stuck behind until I arrived in the States. And at first, I waited till the bus came each day to search through 15,000 people until I was exhausted.”

Catholic Charities gave him a job as a camp runner who went between the eight refugee camps to direct people to an office. “I took the job to learn English,” he said. “This gave me a chance to look for my family.”

Nguyen’s life reflected the growing assimilation to the United States of incoming refugees. He found his family three years later and today talks about the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles, and works for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Now he serves as the organization’s director of the Immigration & Refugee Department.

“We have an outreach program with churches to encourage people to organize so they can provide services to new refugees,” he said. “New refugees need help with cultural activities and ethnic group advocacy.”

However, Nguyen’s task today also highlights the obstacles many resettlement organizations face. Less work focused on refugees during the past 10 years because the local government only opts to settle families without those called free cases or people who are unaccompanied.

Nguyen deals with only 100 such refugees, but has changed the emphasis to helping people who seek political asylum. Los Angeles now has one of the busiest political asylum programs after Miami.

The numbers are a stark contrast to the 1975 Catholic Charities resettlement of between 12,000 to 15,000 Asians. Later conflict areas brought refugees from Eastern European, such as the Polish, or Haitians and Cubans. Such numbers once added up to between 5,000 to 6,000 a year.

Many refugee programs focus on different needs depending on local resources. This year, 28 young people from the crisis in the Sudan are finding a home in Jackson, Miss., through the local Catholic Charities. “Most stay with us until they are 21,” said Debra West, program director for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors. “They may elect to leave at 18 or join a family in the U.S., if they are not ready to be on their own.”

Catholic Charities provides all the daily needs through group and foster homes. The minors have 24-hour supervision with recreational, religious, employment, and in-home tutoring activity.

“The Sudanese were referred to places all over the country,” she said. “We have a history with them from 2000 when we received around 60 boys and girls.”

Jackson has made major improvements over the years in dealing with refugees. “We have the staff in place to change with the times,” she said. “Also we have resources like English for Second Language (ESL) that is done with an in-house tutoring program because schools only provide a limited amount.”

The staff includes a cultural specialist from Liberia and a Sudanese specialist who speaks Arabic.

Other organizations exist to resettle refugees besides the local Catholic Charities. The organization works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., which is one of 10 voluntary agencies supported by funding from the U.S. Department of State. However, Catholic Bishops settles the largest single percentage, which this year is around 28 percent of the refugees.

“Catholic Charities is affiliated with us for this program and we enter into a formal agreement with them for the services,” said Mark Franken, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the Conference. “We work through local dioceses and handle the budgeting and oversight.” The Conference is a separate corporation that interfaces with the Federal Government for grants.

For fiscal year 2004 ending in September projects is of refugees entering the United States at just more than 50,000, according to Franken. The Conference settles 14,336 of which 6,144 arrived without families. This figure reflects around 70 ethnicities from 25 nations. The largest numbers now come from Somalia at 4,188, Laos at 2,421, mostly the Hmong minority, and Liberians at 2,018.

Refugees are placed in areas where an ethnic population exists, which might be a small community within a college town. Also, the conference attempts to place refugees with family members already in the country. Those without families can be placed anywhere.

“Once a year, we canvass our network of 106 Catholic dioceses with refugee programs to see which ethnicity they can serve,” he said. “This looks at the organization’s capacity for a language group, the housing, the job picture, and whether they can take large families.”

The picture of the helicopter in 1975 comes to life today for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn. Once Catholic Charities helped victims of the Vietnamese War, and today the agency expects to settle 2,300 Hmong refugees from Laos.

“We expected to deal with 300, but by May that was adjusted to 900 and then 2,300,” said Tom Kosel, program director for Refugee Resettlement Services for Catholic Charities. “We hired additional staff to work with the culture.”

St. Paul became a site because the first people arriving after the fall of Saigon started the Asian community. At the beginning, the plan for a national strategy of dispersion was to avoid an impact on just a handful of communities. The effort sought to distribute the flow to many places around the country.

“Then we had a small percentage of Asians, and most would have been students,” he said. “Most of the support came from the general population.”

Basic resettlement services focus on the first 90 days of core needs that aim to obtain self sufficiency for the arrival. At times the needs go beyond that time for longer term services, such as education or healthcare and possibly social services for the youth or elderly.

Arrivals enter with the classification of a refugee status, which can be retained as long as they choose. Most opt for permanent residency status after one year, with many applying for naturalization. They technically can remain at the permanent residency or obtain Green Card status.

To deal with the new arrivals, Kosel has a staff person from Vietnam, who entered the United States as a refugee in 1975, serving as an interpreter. “We organize by going to parishes and churches to form committees,” he said. “Then the people take on housing, look for jobs, and help to place kids in schools.”

The U.S. Department of State actually doesn’t have a set percentage of the total number of refugees who are distributed to the various agencies. “Three ways exist for how a refugee arrives,” said Anastasia K. Brown, director of Refugee Programs, Migration & Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “When the person is processed overseas, the person is predestined for that organization.”

Then for those who are processed here, they can arrive with or without a family and then the State Department sends a percentage of cases to each organization based on the capacity of the organization. Such a percentage fluctuates through the years. Some refugees seek an agency because of ethnic reasons, such as Jewish people fleeing from the former Soviet Union desired the Hebrew agency.

The former refugees have built a growing community that supports the newcomers. Former refugees don’t need convincing about the struggles, according to Nguyen in Los Angeles. “The volunteers and sponsorship from the mainstream community are more of a problem today, so we get the ethnic community involved,” he said. “We learned a lesson from the Cubans, because the early Laotians and Vietnamese were once resettled with Cuban families.”

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.

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