Untapped Talent

October 23, 2008

A Washington Post article today addressed America’s inability to utilized the talents of it’s foreign-born workers, particularly immigrants and refugees. According to a recent study produced by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC, “One in five college-educated immigrants in the United States is unemployed or working in an unskilled job such as a dishwasher, fast-food restaurant cashier or security guard, depriving the U.S. economy of the full potential of more than 1.3 million foreign-born workers.

While the article mainly focuses on the impact and examines the educational level of immigrants from Latin America and Africa rather than your standard refugee who has fled war and conflict, the article did mention two paragraphs on the situation for refugees worth noting:

Refugees often face the highest hurdles because they lack even the cushion of financial support from family. Vu Dang, director of the International Rescue Committee‘s Washington area refugee resettlement office, said this obstacle has proved particularly vexing to Iraqi refugees arriving in recent months. They receive a three-month stipend from the U.S. government, at best.

The resettlement office has “to acclimatize them to the reality that whatever they were in their home country is irrelevant,” Dang said. “They need to find a job right away just to pay their rent, and those kind of jobs are going to be jobs in hotels and restaurants that pay a little bit over minimum wage.

Given the short assistance provided to refugees when they are resettled, few are able to use their skills and education from the countries in which they have fled to contribute to America. Perhaps if we were to provide refugees with some time and understand it takes a little longer than three-months to adjust to a new culture, language, and way of life, perhaps than refugees will not be burdens on our communities. Instead, they will put their talents and skills to use to contribute in a positive manner to the economy and their new communities. Americans have to understand that while we provide a safe haven for refugees, we also have to provide opportunities for them in order to both benefit in the long run.


NEWS from Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

Dutch Labour backs review of Iraqi refugees

The Dutch governing Labour Party has dropped its opposition to a government plan to stop giving all Iraqi refugees a temporary residence permit. It had opposed the move saying security in Iraq was insufficient for asylum seekers to return safely. The party says it has been swayed by Labour Deputy Justice Minister Nebahat Albarayk, who says most Iraqi asylum seekers fled Iraq through Syria and Jordan.

Labour support means the plan now has a majority in parliament. The plan also calls for a fresh review of the asylum applications of some 5,000 Iraqis already in the Netherlands. Aid agencies say the government is failing the refugees.

When the global debate over refugees takes place, the question has always been: which country (or countries) should bare the burden of caring for those who have been displaced? Two pieces today, one from the Catholic News Service and the other, Post-Bulletin of Rochester, NY portrays what life is like for refugees in the country of first refuge and then country of resettlement.

The country of first refuge is where refugees flee to after they have left their homes. Refugees often languish in refugee camps or poor urban and rural areas in these places for years at a time before they are resettled. The Catholic News Service discussed the trouble of education for many refugees in Cairo, Egypt – a place that has been known to become a haven for refugees from Africa and Middle Eastern countries.

“The Sudanese [refugees] consider Egypt a step” to resettlement in the United States, Canada or another country, said Yasmine Serry of CRS, who coordinates the program. But hopes of resettlement often are delayed or dashed, and as families struggle to adapt to life in their new home, one of the first hurdles is sending their children to school.

While Egypt has allowed many refugees to harbor in cities like Cairo, it has unfortunately been unable to accommodate for the needs of the displaced, and as a result, many refugees live in sub-standard environments and become burdens on the surrounding communities. Few countries who have served as the first country or refuge for refugees have been able to integrate them in a meaningful manner. As a result, the burden has fallen on “western” nations such as the United States, Canada, etc. While these nations have had humanitarian traditions to be countries of resettlement, where refugees are relocated after they have entered refugee camps, they cannot continue this for years to come. The “burden” of refugees cannot fall on a select few countries but all countries must work appropriately to assist and provide for those who have fled from war and conflict.

As the article in the Post-Bulletin of Rochester, NY highlights, when refugees are provided with education, they become contributing members of societies and their children have the opportunity to be part of the new resettlement nation, developing an understanding of the country’s culture and values.

Sudanese refugee Gawa Eldabas…Two years earlier, she had fled Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to escape oppressive government control. Now, she was leaving her temporary home of Cairo, Egypt [country of first refuge], with her husband and three children…on a plane bound for the United States.

With the help of the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association’s program in New York, refugees like Gawa Eldabas are complete programs in nursing and joining a much needed profession in the American work force while her kids are receiving an education. Instead of becoming a burden on a community like once may have been in Egypt, Gawa Eldabas and her family are adding the the diversity and economic needs of the United States because countries of resettlements are investing in those who have sought refuge within their borders.

Refugees Among Us

October 10, 2008

Boston Globe

Nuon family and Photographer Nancy Carbonaro. Image copyright: Boston Globe

A featured article about a humanitarian photographer and a small bakery in Wellesley, Massachusetts shows many refugees in the United States contribute a great deal to the economic growth and the cultural life of their communities. The story was featured in the Boston Globe. Photographer Nancy Carbonaro was often a customer at the Nuon’s family bakery but never knew the family’s refugee background until she returned from a trip to Cambodia. What she discovered moved her a great deal:

Nuon’s family [the bakery shop owners] lived in Cambodia in the time of the Khmer Rouge, the communist party that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people, or roughly one-fifth of the country’s population, through torture, execution and starvation in its campaign to remake Cambodia into a radical agrarian society…

…The family’s surviving members eventually made their way to a refugee camp in the Philippines, then came to the United States in November 1982, thanks to the sponsorship of a Stoughton family who let the Nuons live in their guesthouse.

As Americans, the Nuon family wants to continue to the rich humanitarian tradition of their new home in the United States by improving the conditions of their homeland. As Mara Nuon states, “When you’ve been there, you’re not going to say, ‘I’ve made it, the hell with you.’ I’m looking for an organization where I can go and be effective, and do whatever I can do to make a difference.”

Massachusetts is estimated to have the second largest population of Cambodian refugees in the United States, where roughly 50,000 have built their homes and become a large ethnic group in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts. However, Long Beach, California has the largest Cambodian refugee populations and was the first site many were resettled to because of the cheap housing market and similar climate conditions to Cambodia.

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.