U.S. Refugee Program 'On Life Support,' Facing Big Challenges | Connecticut Public Radio
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U.S. Refugee Program 'On Life Support,' Facing Big Challenges

Mar 25, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 10:19 am

Among the more daunting challenges President Biden faces in the coming year will be to make good on his goal of admitting 10 times as many refugees — 125,000 — as former President Donald Trump allowed to enter the United States last year. During his presidency, Trump ordered drastic cutbacks in the U.S. refugee program.

"It's going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged," Biden said in a speech last month at the State Department, "but that's precisely what we're going to do."

Among those who doubt Biden can meet his goal are the very agencies responsible for the mission.

"One hundred and twenty-five thousand refugees being resettled this [next] year is unrealistic," says Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nine organizations tasked by the government to serve the needs of people fleeing war or persecution.

"Our refugee resettlement has been on life support for the past few years," Vignarajah says. Seventeen of her agency's 48 resettlement sites have closed due to budgetary cutbacks in the U.S. government's refugee program. Any rapid expansion of refugee admissions will therefore depend on a dramatic turnaround.

"It involves reopening offices that were closed, rehiring staff we lost, and regaining crucial institutional knowledge," Vignarajah says. The staff members who were let go, she says, represented decades of experience.

The work of resettling refugees is carried out on a family by family basis. Each case typically requires a dozen or more volunteers and social work professionals and takes several years.

A family escaping war

In Newark, Del., Pathy and Acastela Mulema were admitted to the U.S. in 2018 from a refugee camp in Ghana, where they had fled after a civil war broke out around them in the Central African Republic.

They arrived penniless with limited English language skills and burdened by the emotional and physical scars of what they had endured.

Their nightmare began in March 2013, when anti-government rebels seized control of the county's capital, Bangui. Pathy was home with the couple's two daughters, ages 5 and 6, when a rebel fighter came to the house. He related his story recently, sitting with his wife on a bench in their apartment courtyard.

"He cut me in my head, here and here," Mulema says, pointing to a long scar across his temple. "The blood come all [over] my face. I'm gone. I forgot everything." Unconscious, Mulema was unable to protect his daughters, who went missing. His wife Acastela that day was visiting her sister.

"The rebels come, start to shoot the gun," she recalls. "Boom. Boom. Boom. A big one." Acastela and her sister made their way to a local hospital, where they found Pathy, but not their daughters. With fighting raging across the city, looking for them was out of the question.

"No back home again," Pathy says. "From the hospital, we leave and run away." At that point, they had no idea whether their daughters were alive or dead.

With other refugees, the Mulemas made their way to Ghana. The refugee camp there was administered by the United Nations. They spent five years living in miserable conditions, with little or no shelter. Another daughter, Victoria, was born in the camp.

"Sometime no food, only water," Acastela recalls. "If you sleep, you need to be careful for the snakes."

"And insects," Pathy adds. "Scorpions."

Welcomed to the U.S.

U.N. representatives, hearing their story, approved the Mulemas for resettlement, and they were eventually approved for entry to the United States. The local sponsor designated to receive them was Jewish Family Services of Delaware, an affiliate of the HIAS organization (previously known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

"They come with maybe two suitcases," says Rosi Crosby, the lead Jewish Family Services staff member responsible for the Mulemas. "They get in a van, and that same night, we bring them to their apartment, which is fully stocked, fully furnished."

The work of resettling the family, however, had barely begun, given where the Mulemas were coming from.

"You can imagine them getting to the apartment," Crosby says. "There are so many questions. 'How do you flush the toilet? How do you use the dishwasher? How do you use the microwave? How do I lock my door? Who are my neighbors? What happens if there's an emergency?' "

In a sign of the interfaith character of refugee resettlement work, Jewish Family Services of Delaware partnered with a local Christian church, Calvary Baptist, to accommodate the Mulema family. Over the next three years, about a dozen volunteers from the church helped the Mulemas deal with the new challenges they faced.

"We had certain individuals responsible for carrying the family to their doctors' appointments," says Marcia Williamson, a Calvary Baptist member who coordinated the volunteer effort. "We had a team able to assist them reviewing documents that were coming into the home. We had other individuals who were available to get them to the grocery store and take care of some of those day to day responsibilities."

Jewish Family Services found an apartment for the Mulemas, saw to its furnishing and gave the family $3,600 as a one-time-only grant. Between that help and the assistance from Calvary Baptist volunteers, the Mulemas had virtually all their needs met.

"They give you a phone. They give us money. They give us clothes, food," Acastela says. "They show us everything. How to take the bus. If you need help, you call them."

Only after arriving in the United States did the Mulemas learn that their older daughters had indeed survived the war and were themselves in a refugee camp. They are now awaiting their turn to join their parents in the U.S. The slowdown in refugee admissions has delayed the process.

Faith mission on hold

Of the nine agencies tasked by the U.S. government with refugee resettlement work, six are faith-based. All are motivated by a scriptural imperative to welcome the stranger, and because the work relies so heavily on charity and volunteers, local congregations play vital roles.

Given how much work is necessary to resettle a single refugee family, however, the prospect of vastly and suddenly increased refugee admissions is barely feasible, in large part because the refugee resettlement infrastructure has been eroded over the past four years. Trump allowed fewer than 12,000 refugees to enter the country last year, the lowest number in the history of the U.S. refugee program.

Across the United States, about one out of three resettlement sites have closed. Jewish Family Services of Delaware was informed it would not be assigned any more refugee families.

"They continued to serve the people who had already arrived, but they were no longer able to serve new cases," says Mark Hetfield, the HIAS president. "That technically is referred to as being 'zero-ed out.'"

"The Trump Administration really did some serious damage to the infrastructure of the refugee program," Hetfield says. "Also, obviously, the pandemic put some really serious restrictions on."

A renewed government commitment to refugee admissions is not enough on its own to bring the program back to full strength. Landlords willing to rent below market or merchants willing to sell at a discount have to be recontacted, or new ones found. Faith communities that have been left on the sidelines in recent years will have to be re-energized.

The United States was founded as a nation of ideals, with almost a religious obligation to welcome the tired and homeless. The country has met the commitment before. It's now challenged to do so again, hard though it may be.

In Newark, Del., there is not much available capacity to accommodate new refugee families.

"For me, it is hard to imagine helping more than one family at a time, just with the size of our congregation," says Pastor Corey Fields of Calvary Baptist. His church, he says, has all it can handle serving the needs of the Mulema family.

"Our church would probably have trouble doing more right now," he says. "But I will say this: There are many other churches that need to do their part."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the next year, President Biden wants to bring in 10 times more refugees than the number former President Trump allowed in last year. Is that even possible? NPR's Tom Gjelten has a look at this country's capacity to accommodate refugees.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: America's reputation as a welcoming country has come in part through its embrace of people seeking to escape war and persecution, people like Pathy and Acastela Mulema, who came here from the Central African Republic. Pathy Mulema describes the day he was attacked in his home by an anti-government rebel.

PATHY MULEMA: He cut me in my head, here and here. The blood come over the face. I'm gone.

GJELTEN: He knocked you out.

P MULEMA: Yeah, I know nothing.

GJELTEN: Pathy's wife, Acastela, that day, was visiting her sister.

ACASTELA MULEMA: The rebels come, start to shoot the gun - boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom - ka, ka, ka, ka (ph) - big, big one.

GJELTEN: She had no idea what had happened to her husband, Pathy, nor their two daughters, ages 5 and 6, who had been with him.

A MULEMA: My neighbor, she helped me. So now I go to the hospital. I find Pathy over there.

GJELTEN: But not the girls. And going back to look for them was out of the question.

P MULEMA: No back home again. From the hospital, we leave, and we run away.

GJELTEN: Running for their lives, not knowing whether their daughters were alive or dead. They ended up in a refugee camp in Ghana. This was in 2013. The Mulemas spent five years there under miserable conditions with little or no shelter.

A MULEMA: Sometimes no food.

GJELTEN: And where did you sleep?

A MULEMA: You need to be careful for the snake.

P MULEMA: Insect...

A MULEMA: Scorpion.

P MULEMA: ...The scorpion

GJELTEN: Scorpions and snakes. The Mulemas are now in Newark, Del., with an apartment of their own. They sit today on a bench outdoors, holding their 1-year-old daughter. She was born here. Another daughter, 7, sits alongside. She was born in the camp in Ghana. Only after arriving here three years ago did they learn their older daughters had indeed survived the war and were themselves in a refugee camp. They're now waiting their turn to come and rejoin their parents.

It's because of stories like this that America is still seen as a generous country. The Mulemas were sponsored by Jewish Family Services of Delaware.

ROSI CROSBY: They come with maybe two suitcases each. They get in a van, and then they arrive at Jewish Family Services.

GJELTEN: Rosi Crosby helped with the arrangements.

CROSBY: And that same night, we bring them to their apartment, which is fully stocked, fully furnished. But you can imagine. How do you flush the toilet? How do you use the dishwasher? How do I lock my door?

GJELTEN: To Acastela Mulema, it seemed their sponsors were on hand for their every need.

A MULEMA: They give you the phone. They give us some money, clothes, some food. They show us everything - how to take the bus. If we need help, call them.

GJELTEN: Resettling a refugee family is a huge undertaking. It depends on dozens of people helping out, some professional staff, many volunteers. In Delaware, Jewish Family Services partnered with a local Christian church, Calvary Baptist.

MARCIA WILLIAMSON: We had certain individuals that were responsible for carrying the family to their doctors' appointments.

GJELTEN: Marcia Williamson coordinated the church volunteers who worked with the Mulema family.

WILLIAMSON: We had a team able to assist them in reviewing documents that were coming into the home. We had other individuals who were available just to get them to the grocery store and to take care of some of the day-to-day responsibilities.

GJELTEN: In 2016, the last year of the Obama presidency, the United States resettled 85,000 refugees in this manner. But under Trump, the resettlement program was nearly shut down. Last year, fewer than 12,000 refugees were admitted, the smallest number in the history of the U.S. refugee program. Across the country, 1 out of 3 resettlement sites closed. Jewish Family Services of Delaware was informed it would not be assigned any more refugee families. Mark Hetfield is the president of HIAS, the Jewish refugee agency that oversees Jewish Family Services of Delaware.

MARK HETFIELD: They continued to serve the people who had already arrived, but they were no longer able to serve new cases. So that technically is referred to as being zeroed out.

GJELTEN: The Biden administration now wants to ramp the program up again - quickly - admitting up to 62,500 refugees in the next five months alone. Hetfield says that goal is not remotely realistic.

HETFIELD: Nobody is expecting us to resettle 62,500 refugees this year. The Trump administration really did some serious damage to the infrastructure of the resettlement program. Also, obviously, the pandemic put some really serious restrictions on.

GJELTEN: HIAS is one of nine agencies the government has tasked with the work of refugee resettlement. Six are faith-based. They are motivated by a scriptural imperative to welcome the stranger. And given how this work relies on charity, congregations are vital players. But these days, all the refugee agencies are in a weakened state. Krish Vignarajah runs the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

KRISH VIGNARAJAH: Truthfully, our refugee resettlement system has been on life support for the past few years.

GJELTEN: On life support - because of the cutback under Trump, there's much to do before more refugees can start coming in.

VIGNARAJAH: Reopening offices that were closed, rehiring staff we lost, regaining the crucial institutional knowledge, which in some staff represented literally decades of experience.

GJELTEN: Landlords willing to rent below market or merchants willing to sell at a discount have to be recontacted or new ones found. A renewed government commitment to refugee admissions isn't enough. Faith communities left on the sidelines will have to be reenergized.

Back in Newark, Del., there's not much capacity to accommodate new refugee families.

COREY FIELDS: For me, it is hard to imagine helping more than one family at a time just with the size of our congregation.

GJELTEN: Corey Fields, the Calvary Baptist pastor, says his church has all it can handle with the Mulema family.

FIELDS: Our church would probably have trouble doing more right now or immediately. But I will say this. There are many other churches that need to do their part, many churches that need to do their part.

GJELTEN: The United States was founded as a nation of ideals with almost a religious obligation to welcome the tired and homeless. The country has met the commitment before. It's now challenged to do so again, hard though it may be.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "RESOLVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.