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Barbara Shelly: U.S. needs a wider door for refugees

This article was originally posted on Kansascity.com

The United States traditionally has opened its doors to more than half of the small number of the world’s refugees who are chosen for resettlement. But now, with an estimated 60 million human beings on the move in search of safety and better lives, our nation’s admittance threshold for refugees suddenly seems stingy.

Only 70,000 persons were resettled on American soil in the last year. Most of them have lived outside of their home countries for years, often under tarp roofs in refugee camps.

The U.S. State Department plans to raise the ceiling for refugee admissions, reaching as many as 100,000 in 2017. But even that number looks puny as news reports depict waves of migrants storming the beaches and train stations of Europe in their flight from Middle East turmoil. Older but still acute refugee situations in Africa, Asia and Latin America barely receive a mention.

The United States is a big, bountiful nation. And refugees as a group are an asset. They are eager to work, learn English and seize the promise known as America. So why are we currently accepting a population smaller than the city of St. Joseph, Mo.?

The answer has to do with global events and the mood of the U.S. Congress, which decides how much money to budget for the task of resettling refugees.

And this: Successfully integrating refugees in America is hard work — for agencies, communities and especially the new arrivals.

Recently I visited Mohamed Abdalla Rahma, who lives with his wife, Khairah Lessy, and their 4-year-old son, Hassan, in a sparsely furnished apartment in Kansas City’s Northeast district.

They arrived in the United States in January, but Rahma, 28, had been working on his English before his arrival. With a boost from a translator, he is able to tell a riveting if harrowing story about being routed from his village in Darfur by Sudanese militias, life on the run and in refugee camps, arrests and jailings.

He escaped Sudan in 2008 and entered Egypt, where he lived as a migrant and scratched out a living with temporary, odd jobs. As a Sudanese, he endured discrimination and abuse in neighboring Egypt. The bright spot in his time there was meeting his wife, who is Indonesian and was a domestic worker.

Today Rahma works overnight cleaning machinery at a meat-packing plant in Kansas City, Kan., and he just received a promotion to a leader’s role. He returns home in the morning to get his son to preschool at Della Lamb Community Services and his wife to English classes. Most days he works a couple of hours cleaning a bus station in Independence. He is thrilled to have a used car, almost paid for. In the early evening he tries to grab a few hours of sleep.

Despite a schedule that would exhaust a work horse, Rahma is full of optimism about his new life.

“Before, soldiers would come around and disturb people,” he said. “Nobody bothers me here. I’m getting my full freedom.”

Like many immigrants, his hopes reach a generation ahead. “I didn’t have a chance to go to school,” he said, “but my son will have a chance to be a better person.”

Rahma’s charisma and youthful energy make his orientation to America look easier than it is.

Refugee families come here with little except the clothes on their backs. Most don’t speak more than a few words of English. Devices like thermostats and water faucets are often new concepts.

After long, disorienting journeys, they are met at the airport by representatives from agencies that receive State Department contracts to resettle new families. In this area, those are Jewish Vocational Services and Della Lamb on the Missouri side and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas on the Kansas side.

Most Missouri-side refugees over the past couple of years began their journeys in war-torn African nations; more than 600 arrived here over the last 12 months. In Kansas, Burmese arrivals currently make up the largest group; Catholic Charities resettled almost 400 persons in the past year.

Those without family in the area will find an apartment waiting for them, with the deposit and first month’s rent paid. They will receive $925 per person, which must be used within 90 days. The agencies will help with finding a job and signing up for school, adult literacy classes and medical care.

After three months, refugees are expected to overcome health ailments, lingering effects of trauma and the loneliness and strangeness of a new culture and be self sufficient.

Sometimes they aren’t, and that puts a strain on the charitable resettlement agencies, which aren’t inclined to turn their backs on people who need help.

Della Lamb, which has resettled about 150 persons this year, is running a deficit of more than $100,000 in its refugee program. It hopes to close the gap through philanthropy.

“The financial process needs to be tweaked,” said Steve Weitkamp, who runs the refugee resettlement program at Jewish Vocational Services, the area’s most prolific resettlement agency. The $925-per-person allotment favors large families, but works against single people and smaller households, he noted.

More refugees coming to Kansas City, which is likely as the State Department raises its lid, would bring challenges and expenses.

The supply of available housing would have to be expanded. Only certain landlords are willing to rent to tenants without rent histories, Social Security numbers or co-signers. In Kansas City, most of those properties are in the Northeast.

Most children of refugee families attend Kansas City Public Schools or a charter school affiliated with Della Lamb. They tend to be motivated students who learn English quickly and catch up to classmates. But newly arrived refugee children require extra resources, and students who have spent their childhoods focused on survival don’t immediately excel on the all-important standardized tests.

Area resettlement agencies are good at finding jobs for newly arrived adult refugees. The jobs are low-paying and often physically exhausting, but they represent a foothold. A bigger challenge is finding fulfilling work for better educated refugees. Academic and professional credentials from their past aren’t readily accepted here, and employers for professional positions usually insist on good language skills.

“High expectations increase the possibility of disappointment,” Weitkamp said.

At least in the beginning. Life for newly arrived refugees is hard, but their story is one of people moving up, into better housing, better jobs and better opportunities.

“It is labor-intensive work but it is very productive,” said Judy Akers, executive vice president of Della Lamb Community Services. “You literally see very quickly the changes in people’s lives.”

To take in more refugees, Kansas City will need more resources, both philanthropic and governmental. That’s probably true of any U.S. location that receives refugees for resettlement.

And the public will need to continue to have confidence in the government’s screening procedures, which currently are the toughest they’ve ever been. Refugees who enter the U.S. have passed muster with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security.

But in a world of dislocation and need, the U.S. is fortunate to have enough room and good will to take in more people displaced from their homelands by violence and wars. In the long run, most of these refugees will give back at least as much as they receive.

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