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Published September 26 2010

Advocate groups question whether refugees receive enough support

Is the U.S. government giving adequate support to newly resettled refugees? With the recession putting a squeeze on new arrivals and their host communities, that question has gained new urgency in recent months.

Refugee advocate groups such as the national Refugees USA question whether a one-size-fits-all support package for newcomers is working. Refugees get up to eight months of modest cash assistance before they must become self-sufficient, whether they are illiterate, single moms or survivors of torture.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently released the “Abandoned Upon Arrival” report. The document deems America’s resettlement efforts underfunded and understaffed and takes the federal government to task for passing on some of the costs of resettlement to host communities.

Local advocates have also voiced concerns. JoAnna Panther, a Grand Forks volunteer and former veteran social worker, says for many newcomers, learning English, getting a job and becoming self-sufficient in eight months is “a pie-in-the-sky idea.” A Middle Eastern family she works with is floundering on one part-time job and no health insurance.

“It’s just not enough time,” Panther says. “It’s like asking people to learn to swim without swimming lessons.”

Pierre Atilio, a Fargo immigrant advocate and himself a refugee from southern Sudan, says the plight of refugees is “a disaster waiting to happen.” He says Lutheran Social Services might be pushing refugees to take on jobs too soon, before they’ve learned English or picked up the skills they need to navigate a U.S. work environment.

“Are these people job-ready? Nobody knows,” says Atilio. “Do they speak English? Nobody knows. Are they in a position to integrate? Nobody knows.”

The Fargo Lutheran Social Services new-American team says support for refugees, such as one-on-one job counseling, doesn’t end when the financial assistance does. Undoubtedly, they say, eight months can be a tall order for some families, and sometimes the staff wishes they had a little flexibility.

But in the end, their central message to new arrivals is that they cannot grow to expect handouts.

“If you do a year or two years, people might not be motivated,” says LSS’ Sinisa Milovanovic. “You need to have a sense of personal responsibility.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529 or mkoumpilova@forumcomm.com