When: October 10th-12th, 2008.
Where: University of Pittsburgh

Barbara  Harrell-Bond, OBE from the American University in Cairo
Merrill Smith, Director of International Advocacy at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Judy Wakahiu, Executive Director of Refugee Consortium in Kenya
Abraham A. Awolich, Co-Founder of New Sudan Education Initiative
Khadra Mohammed, Executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center

For more information, visit www.refugeeconference.org


Ali Rawaf, a high school senior in Tuscan, Arizona, wrote in the Tuscan Citizen how Iraqi refugees arrive to the United States with myths of what to expect:

After having lost many loved ones and gone through many crises, Iraqi refugees come prepared to have an easy life here.

Like other refugees before them, Iraqi refugees, regardless of the socio-economic class they left behind, have to sign up to qualify for food stamps, health insurance and other basic social services. As Rawaf states, “With limited educational programs and orientations, the refugees end up spending their money not carelessly, but rather extravagantly.”

The number of refugees admitted is actually more than refugee resettlement agencies can handle. If the number of refugees admitted surpasses the capacities of agencies to provide support, should the Bush administration continue to meet its goal of admitting 12,000 Iraqi refugees by September? This is a question that I have continually thought about.

Since the U.S. led invasion of Iraqi, the Bush administration came under criticism from advocacy groups and lawmakers for its under performance on admitting refugees from Iraq who had fled violence. Critics and officials have acknowledged, that the administration has a moral obligation to Iraqi refugees and therefore, the government has been steadfast in meeting its goals. While I support the government doing its share in admitting refugees into this country and assisting the 2 million who have been displaced since 2003, I urge the government to provide more support for social services for refugees instead of decreasing the number admitted.

Some may argue that America is already admitting too many refugees and while I understand this view, I point to the fact that the U.S. government’s target number of admissions of Iraqi refugees is far lower than other countries; notably Sweden who has admitted roughly 40,000 refugees since 2003.

While I agree with Rawaf’s statement, “It is better to have 10 Iraqi refugees who are satisfied with their lives than having 100 angry ones with no life at all,” I urge state and federal agencies to evaluate their approaches to resettlement and perhaps achieve an ideal where all 100 refugees are safe, happy, and prosperous, rather than have them be angry and become burdens on the communities they reside.

August 28, 2008--Nubarido Kuebee juggles his 9-month-old son Justin Kuebee as he works in his newly opened African Grocery Store in the 4000 block of South Grand Boulevard. Copyright David Carson, STLToday.com

August 28, 2008--Nubarido Kuebee juggles his 9-month-old son Justin Kuebee as he works in his newly opened African Grocery Store in the 4000 block of South Grand Boulevard. Copyright David Carson, STLToday.com

A recent article in STLtoday.com suggests the city of St. Louis is becoming a new haven for refugees. As a result of available social services and affordable housing, refugees are beginning to rebuilt their lives in the South. The article did a very tasteful job of portraying the lives of refugees in emphasizing how hard they work to make a living for themselves. Many articles attempt to capture the lives of refugees in America, often emphasizing that America is a place where dreams come true and refugees can carve a place for themselves. While this is true, I warn others to recognize that not all refugees are successful and some ethnic/racial groups fair better than others when it comes to integrating into American society. Often, there is this perception that if refugees aren’t succeeding in America, then they aren’t working hard enough. But this is usually not the case:
Having to juggle what is often labor intensive blue collar jobs, learn English, and navigate the American landscape can be physically and emotionally draining. While some refugees are able to achieve their American dream of perhaps owning their own business one day, few are able to become self-sufficient and continually have to depend on social services like food stamps and welfare to make ends meet. Pro refugee activist have argued that the government is being unrealistic when only granting refugees eight months to get back on their feet after fleeing from war and conflict and having to start over again:
Some American college students spend a year abroad where they are immersed in a new culture and spend 24 hours a day 7 days a week learning a new language, and yet are unable to become fluent. What is it about society’s mentality that assumes that a refugee who takes English language night classes while balancing a job is able to become fluent in 8 months? Economics and survival is the name of the game for many refugees and thus, language classes are not a priority for many refugees. Therefore, many struggle to become fluent.
While the article did wonderful job of highlighting the new wave of people building their homes in St. Louis, I warn readers not to romanticize the experiences of refugees. Yes, they are grateful for being in America, and yes, they do love the freedom that America provides, but they are doing their best to try to make ends meet and succeed too. However, only a handful of refugees are able to do well for themselves, while the majority are unable rid themselves of social service dependency. But few articles highlight the lives of refugees who didn’t make it in America. And if they do, it has a very anti-immigration tone.