Seeking REFUGE

Tall and lean, Patrick Manson rose from his seat at the back of a conference room at World Relief Jacksonville. A refugee from Uganda, he spoke in crisp English to an audience of around 40 bishops, volunteers and advocates, who, on Valentine’s Day, had gathered to hear the latest updates on the work of the refugee resettlement agency.

Since his arrival in the Oval Office, President Trump has inked two executive immigration orders that have stunted agencies and the refugees they serve. The initial order, on January 27, instituted a 120-day moratorium on all refugee arrivals, barred Syrians indefinitely and shrank the admissions cap from 110,000 to 50,000.

On March 6, the president issued a second immigration travel ban, after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in February, moved to suspend the first. The new order, to take effect on March 16, lays out more detailed restrictions in a bid to escape any litigation. It commands the Secretary of State to halt travel to the country and the Secretary of Homeland Security to defer status decisions for 120 days for all refugees. During that period, the federal refugee program is to go under review and, possibly, wangle new screening procedures. The cap does not bulge from the 50,000 mark.

“I think Trump [was] just anxious to get started without doing the research, that it needed to go under,” said Elaine Carson, outgoing director of World Relief Jacksonville, of the initial order, “I have heard several news reports now that he has learned from it. But many people are suffering because of it.”

For Manson, who hopes to bring his young son and daughter to the States, current circumstances further prolong the separation from his children. He said his children recently prepared for one of many interviews refugee applicants are required to do, only to be told it had been cancelled.

Manson is not alone in this ordeal. A Sudanese refugee with Catholic Charities, whose resettlement agency asked that he be identified by only his first name, Adouma, expected his wife to soon join him after three years of legal processing. Adouma now dreads their reunion may never happen.

Many of the 3,238 refugees Jacksonville welcomed in the last five fiscal years out of Florida’s total of 13,752 (not counting Cuban and Haitian parolees), harbor the same concerns. The three refugee resettlement agencies in the city-World Relief, Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities-have no means of allaying their worries.

“I have seen some video, heard some of our colleagues share about how tough it is to deliver that news to [refugees], that their family is no longer able to come, at least not for now,” said Travis Trice, church mobilizer at World Relief. “When you just built up, you waited years-and I mean years-for someone to come.”

Amid concern for family members, whose cases have stalled, creeps in refugees’ fears for their own fate in the States. Some, especially Muslims and even green card holders, question their welcome here, and wonder whether they will be deported. Those who escaped persecution in their native lands may sense a target on them again, said Siamand Ando, a caseworker providing integration assistance at Catholic Charities. The ones who left dictatorships conceive the U.S. president’s authority as unlimited. Ando reminds them this is not the case. There are checks and balances. There is Congress. There are courts.

“They feel like they are facing, at least for this moment, an unknown future. What will happen? This is the worst thing that people experience in their life. I mean, they came because they had a fear. Right now, I can see that at least a number of refugees have fears-they do not know what is going on,” said Ando.
Ando is himself an Iraqi refugee who came to the States in October 2010, the beginning of fiscal year 2011. For each fiscal year, the president, in consultation with Congress, stipulates the quotas of refugee admissions. In fiscal 2011, together with Ando, a little more than 56,000 refugees came to America, around 600 from Iraq. Some eight months after Ando arrived in Jacksonville, the Kentucky case broke. Two Iraqi refugees residing in Bowling Green, Kentucky were arrested and convicted of attempting to provide money and weapons to Al Qaeda in Iraq. In an investigation into Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shereef Hammadi’s ties with the terror group, the FBI found the former’s fingerprints on an unexploded IED in Iraq. Both men attested to carrying out attacks on U.S. soldiers in their native country.

As a result, the Obama Administration revamped the program, re-vetting refugees and placing restrictions on the process for Iraqis. Even though President Trump has likened his executive order to his predecessor’s action, the comparison rings inaccurate.

“We did continue to receive Iraqi refugees every month during that slowdown and it was just Iraq,” said Trice. “This time around it [was] a complete shutdown from all refugees from every country. And I guess the issue that we have [is that] there is no incident that justifies this. Because if there was, you know, we are pro-security, too. We want [the refugee resettlement program] to be a safe and secure process and we are not for open borders, we believe in the rule of law.”

Since 1975, when President Gerald Ford signed the Refugee Assistance Act after the Vietnam War, prompting a wave of asylum-seekers, the U.S. has admitted more than three million refugees. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the tally steeply dipped, only to cautiously climb to a little less than 85,000 last year, which nonetheless represents a sliver of the world’s refugees, which now number in excess of 20 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 2017, as prolonged hostilities rage in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar (Burma), among other places, the nine national voluntary resettlement agencies geared up to receive 110,000 individuals. In Jacksonville, World Relief prepared and budgeted to assist 600 refugees, Catholic Charities 200, and Lutheran Social Services close to 300. Then, over a quarter into the fiscal year, when some 32,000 refugees had already been resettled, the president slashed the cap, leaving only 18,000 to be let in until October.

“It’s difficult to think that we are experiencing the largest forced migration crisis in recorded history and we have possibly temporarily stopped the process,” said Michelle Karolak, director of the refugee program at Catholic Charities. “I worry that in a few months we would be expected to ‘startup’ again but would not be in a position to do so. There are so many moving parts in the U.S. Refugee resettlement program. One hiccup can add years to the process.”

The process is long and complex for refugees and the local agencies that serve them. Once granted refugee status by the United Nations and referred for resettlement to the States, applicants spend between two to five years-some even more-in interviews, background checks and health exams, carried out by the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Health and Human Services. Trice said some refugees describe the vetting as mental torture.

“No other traveler gets the kind of scrutiny the refugee does,” said Nancy Hale, director of the Refugee Immigration Project at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, which provides legal assistance to refugees.

Once a refugee lands in the country-on a federal travel loan they are expected to repay-agencies step in. They meet new arrivals at the airport. Drive them to and from medical appointments. Secure housing. Provide orientation classes that teach any number of new things, from how to use deodorant to job interview skills. They enroll children at school. Show them how to ride the bus-their initial mode of transportation. Manage various applications-for food and cash and health assistance. Help adults gain employment. It is a lot to be learned and done.

Adjusting to the American customs and mores “might be really difficult because it might create what we call acculturative stress or some mental [issues],” said Roland Wasembeck, paralegal at JALA.

Despite the shock their new environs may trigger, the goal for refugees is to reach self-sufficiency in 90 days. For that period, the federal government extends a one-time stipend of up to $1,125 per refugee to cover their costs. “If a family of two is resettled, you could see how those funds might not last very long once rent and deposits are paid,” said Karolak.

Although, according to the Sun Sentinel, Florida’s resettlement agencies receive about $260 million a year from the federal government, they often depend on charity, volunteerism and various grant schemes to fulfill their administrative expenses and meet refugees’ needs, which stretch further than their first three months here.

As Trump’s executive order postulated fewer newcomers, it also meant less money and less work for resettlement offices. World Relief Jacksonville temporarily ceased taking donations­-there was no one for funds to go to. It laid off several of its 26-member staff, many of whom were once refugees themselves and among them speak 22 languages.

The scene at other offices is no different. If the flow of refugees does not resume, says Akbar Hakimzoda of the English department of Catholic Charities, the agency may be pressed to roll back its English adult classes, which currently are held at five locations around the city and are attended by some 400 refugees from all three local resettlement organizations.

“The refugees that have been here for a longer time will not have the possibility to attend classes because we will not have budget and everything will be closed,” said Hakimzoda. Such a prospect would impede refugees’ integration and success that largely hinges on speaking English, he said.

Sponsored by the state, the English project runs into another hurdle-Florida House Bill 427, which on Feb. 16 passed the House subcommittee of Children, Families and Seniors. The proposal was initiated in January by State Rep. David Santiago’s (R-Deltona) concerns over security, mainly about Syrian refugees. If it becomes law, the bill would turn Florida into one of more than a dozen states, including Texas, Kansas and New Jersey, to withdraw from the federal refugee program.

It would not shut refugees out of Florida, but it would remove the state as a middleman between the federal government and regional nonprofits. It would also clinch state aid to initiatives like Catholic Charities’ English lessons.

“Refugees that are admitted to the United States can move anywhere. Just because we are not going to accept the funding and the initial resettlement spots,” said Ericka Curran, immigration attorney and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, “it doesn’t mean that refugees who are permitted in the United States are not going to come and live in our state.”

“You cannot bar refugees from your state, you just [don’t] accept the funding, which then leaves us as a state without the sufficient support to help them get the jobs, get the training, get the English-all those things that they need to be successful in the United States.”

As immigration policies shift on the federal and state levels, refugees search for a bright future. Fleeing danger, they come to the country of freedom to forge a new life, to work, to give their kids a bright future, to foster ties and give back. And this is not easy.

“It is very important that our country continues to accept refugees,” said Hale. “There is a tremendous need to help people who have had to deal with horrible situations. They cannot go home and they come to the U.S. and this ends up being their home. And these are people that we see all the time.

“They want to become citizens because they love this country. They have come from countries where there is turmoil and hatred and killing people and torturing people and they come to what is a relatively calm city and a relatively calm country. They finally have an opportunity to live a decent life.”


Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Nancy Hale as director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.