Resettlement agency overcomes struggles
The Refugee and Immigrant Relief Center is receiving more government funding than ever before, but it takes the dedication of case workers to address the culture shock of refugees who still spend eight months or more unemployed.
By Mary Shinn
PHOENIX – The Refugee and Immigrant Relief Center, the smallest of all resettlement agencies in Phoenix, will celebrate 10 years of serving the refugee population in January 2010.
The RIRC is one of four refugee resettlement agencies in Phoenix. Last year the centers resettled 4,327 refugees, according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. The other Phoenix agencies are Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest and The International Rescue Committee. The four centers are not affiliated with one another.
The center resettled 50 people in its first year, Denga said. Last year the agency resettled 226 people, and this year's number had reached 185 as of October 2010. The center has resettled about 1,375 refugees total.
The agency has 15 full-time staff members who speak a total of 15 different languages. Many staff members were once refugees resettled by the center, Denga said. Their language skills meet the needs of the center to communicate with refugees.
In addition, the center is required by law to employ case workers who speak the language of the refugees they are resettling. If the center does not have someone on staff, they must hire a translator. In addition, because many of the case workers were once refugees themselves, they can relate to the culture shock the refugees are experiencing.
The double identity of a refugee and case worker
Sonya, a petite 24-year-old with a warm smile, is one of the case workers at the center who is also a refugee. She came to the United States from Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia formally known as Burma.
She asked to be referred to only by her first name because she would like to return to Myanmar. If the government identifies her as a critic of the government, she might have trouble re-entering the military state.
When she first arrived at the RIRC in March 2010, she said Denga was happy to employ her as a case worker because she speaks 12 languages and the center is currently serving many people from Myanmar.
"When I first arrived, they were lined up out the door to see me," Sonya said, speaking about the Burmese people who needed her assistance.
Sonya is only half Burmese and she was educated in India, but she felt led to travel to Burma on a Christian mission trip when she graduated from high school. When the military discovered the group she was leading was trying to convert Burmese villagers, the group members were brutally beaten and locked in a hut in the forest.
After three days, her group escaped from the military with help from a local villager, who drove them to the Thai border. She spent time in both Thailand and Malaysia as a refugee without any documentation, like many others who flee from Burma because of persecution for their faith or for political reasons.
"Some refugees are well educated and have experience as professionals in medicine or law. But because of their inability to speak English or to produce a college diploma, there is no way to prove they are qualified to go back to work in their previous profession."Amnesty International reported that Burmese account for over 90 percent of the 84,200 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia. This is consistent with the high numbers of Burmese refugees resettling in Arizona: 622 refugees in 2007 escalating to 908 in 2009, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security Refugee Resettlement Program.
Sonya became involved with mentoring people in Malaysia as a counselor for the refugee community, even though she was also fighting for refugee status. She said she was happy to do similar work at the refugee resettlement center in America.
"I am working for my people and that makes me feel good," Sonya said.
Ngombo TonTon Zowa, Sonya's caseworker, said Sonya is particularly special because she is an educated Burmese woman and she acclimatized so quickly to the United States. Many of the other Burmese refugees he has worked with take years to understand the metropolitan culture of Phoenix. This is especially true of Burmese refugees in Phoenix who previously fled to Thailand, because they were forced to live in camps in the forest away from modern life. Zowa said refugees who come from a city like Baghdad have a much better chance of acclimatizing to the city because they do not find basic conveniences shocking.
He said the culture of some Burmese ethnic groups also prevents their success.
"They don't encourage women to work," Zowa said. "There is no way we can put them on the job."
Sonya said one of her main priorities when she helps new arrivals is preparing them to navigate the bureaucratic systems that govern health care, government assistance and insurance.
"I never teach them to rely on me. I say, 'This is the way you can help yourself,'" Sonya said.
Sonya became involved in mentoring people in Malaysia as a counselor for the refugee community, even though she was also fighting for refugee status. She said she was happy to do similar work at the refugee resettlement center in America.
Government funding split between resettlment centers and refugees
Serving the needs of people like Sonya is always a struggle because funding at the center is always tight, Denga said. The amount of funding received from the Office of Refugee Resettlement has been rising, though not nearly enough to provide for the initial needs of the refugees.
The center received $900 per refugee when it started. The amount was split between administrative costs and providing a furnished apartment with food, clothing and every other necessity they might require upon arrival.
In January 2010, the amount was doubled to $1,900. Now $800 is designated to cover administrative costs and $1,100 is designated to provide for the needs of the refugees. The resettlement agencies may choose to hold back $200 from each individual in a family of fou, or more people, in case that family needs financial help later on.
Case workers often struggle to provide refugees with enough basic necessities from the resources available, even after they have been supplemented by donations.
"We try to spread it as thinly as possible," Lindeman said.
The center is usually only given two to three weeks in advance to plan for a refugee's arrival, and during that time they have to find and prepare an apartment. Being unable to budget for the whole year means that the staff has to adjust to constant uncertainty.
"You acclimate as it dumps on you," Lindeman said.
Finding a job despite limited education and English skills
It is the center's responsibility to place the refugees in jobs and to make sure the paperwork for their government assistance is properly submitted.
Culturally, it is a challenge for a refugee to accept a low status job, Lindeman said. Some refugees are well-educated and have experience as professionals in medicine or law. But because of their inability to speak English or to produce a college diploma, there is no way to prove they are qualified to go back to work in their previous profession.
Providing documentation to be placed at the right level in school is also a problem for students, said Israa Al-Sayyed, a volunteer case worker.
She is mentoring an 18-year-old female student from Iraq who was a senior in high school but was told she would have to start over as a freshman because her transcripts were unavailable.
"We eventually pulled her out of school," Al-Sayyed said. "She's going to work and get her GED."
Denga experienced the same problem as a new arrival. He worked as a trade unionist in politics before he came to United States. Upon his arrival, he was placed in a company making water pumps. After two weeks he was fired.
"It was not easy for me," Denga said.