Money woes halt arrival of refugees in Utah
Editor's note: This story was originally published June 22, 2009.
Several dozen refugee families who were scheduled to arrive in Utah later this year will likely be resettled elsewhere,as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops struggles to help families amid a dire economy.
"It's a year of extreme difficulties," said Anastasia Brown, the conference's director of refugee programs, based in Washington, D.C. "In local offices, they have been doing incredible duty trying to make sure that no refugees go homeless."
The organization's decision to limit the number of refugees it helps reflects the state of the nation's troubled refugee programs.
Refugees have been arriving at a faster pace than expected this year. Worried about the potential strain on the local level, the Catholic organization has alerted State Department officials it will not significantly exceed its original agreement to resettle about 20,000 refugees.
State department officials could not be reached for comment Monday.
The poor economy has meant an extraordinarily difficult landing for new refugees in America over the past year. Finding jobs has in many cases taken up to eight months or more, leaving families teetering on homelessness as they struggle to pay rent. The meager financial assistance provided by the federal government leaves them with little money left over for basics.
In Utah, one Somali family of 10 needs a pot big enough to cook dinner together, rather than eating in shifts. Another simply needs a toilet plunger.
The U.S. resettles the largest number of refugees in the world through a string of nonprofit agencies, which funnel federal funding to refugees for their first few months. Critics say the system forces many refugees to live in extended periods of poverty, is starkly underfunded and in need of reform.
A new report by the International Rescue Committee, one of the country's major resettlement organizations, illuminates the crisis facing Iraqi refugees in the U.S. It describes families facing eviction, unable to find work and in need of medical help. Their challenges mirror those of refugees arriving from around the world.
"It's a real moral quandary -- people are often leaving life-threatening situations," said Bob Carey, chairman of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of refugee advocacy organizations. "At the same time, we're bringing them into an environment where the services are not adequate to meet their basic needs."
The U.S. should maintain its "high commitment" to refugees, USCCB's Brown said.
"But we also need a domestic program that fulfills that commitment," she said.
Acknowledging the current challenges, the federal government plans to redirect $5 million toward refugee housing nationwide, an unprecedented move. The funds were previously allocated for refugees overseas.
As a result of the national Catholic group's decision, additional arriving refugees are expected to be resettled in the U.S. by other organizations -- unless they arrive next fiscal year, when budgets are replenished.
Catholic Community Services of Utah is nearly at its projected limit of 550 people this year, said Aden Batar, refugee resettlement director. Having additional cases without additional resources puts the organization in an awkward position.
"We don't want to be blamed for everything," he said. "We're doing all we can already."
The International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City also hopes to limit refugee arrivals to 535 -- which is 100 more refugees than the previous fiscal year.
Before the recession, refugees in Utah often found employment within three or four months -- a task that can now take five to eight months or more. Their federal financial assistance, which may be entirely spent on rent, often ends during that period.
"The pressure is building," said Patrick Poulin, IRC resettlement director. "The refugee program needs a significant increase in resources."
On Monday morning, eight Somali families crowded a tiny office at the new Somali Community Self Management program in Salt Lake City.
"The biggest problem I'm facing is people are not working," said Hussein Omar, a refugee advocate. Utility bills are often an impossible burden.
Fadumo Abdi, a mother of eight, was there to get help with a doctor's appointment and to fill out public housing papers. After three years, she continues to wait for her husband to join her in Utah.
Her life in America had not turned out as she expected when she lived in the refugee camp in Kenya.
"We were in the hot sun," Abdi recalled through an interpreter. "We thought when we got to America it would be like the shade."
Catholic Community Services » 801-977-9119
International Rescue Committee » 801-328-1091
Asian Association of Utah » 801-412-0577
Somali Community Self Management » 801-485-0105
Utah Refugee Services Office » http://refugee.utah.gov" Target="_BLANK">refugee.utah.gov