Olivia Raggio worked in Atlanta.
The public transportation system in Atlanta coincides with how I imagined life to be in the Southern United States before I arrived there: slow, sprawling, always late, and definitely not up to my San Francisco city-dweller standards. The Marta buses are large and cumbersome, and filled with people of all stripes who seem resigned to the fact that they will not get anywhere quickly, some slovenly dressed, others in work uniforms, blankly staring as they meander from where they’ve been to where they’re going.
Every Tuesday for eight weeks, I conducted a Marta orientation for the clients of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta. This required that I myself become well acquainted with Marta, down to its every torturous and inefficient flaw. Hopelessly lost on my first day of work, and worried I would be late and deemed unreliable, I opted to take a cab, which I quickly called using my iphone. Over the next few weeks I came to realize how difficult it would be to arrive in Atlanta and have to rely on MARTA without money or an iphone to help navigate the impossibly complicated and unreliable schedules. The refugees with whom I worked – from Somalia, Burma, and Bhutan to name a few – were expected to do just that even though they spoke no English and were in great part illiterate in their own tongue.
Before this summer, I knew almost nothing about refugees. I didn’t know there are currently 10.4 million people seeking what is called in state department jargon “third-country resettlement.” This number grows daily as conflicts around the world, especially in the Middle East, go unresolved. An initial shock for me was to learn that less than one percent of these refugees reach third country resettlement, and those who do often have been living in squalid camps for ten to twenty years, having fled their homes due to political, social, or religious persecution. Although camps provide a safe haven for these individuals, conditions are grim. I recall picking up from the airport an 87 year-old Somali woman named Udbi who, according to her family had “a bum leg,” only to learn at a doctor’s visit a few days post-arrival that her right hip had been out of its socket for at least fifteen years. The family had been living in a camp in Ethiopia. This type of suffering should be preventable in 2014, I thought, with all the resources that trade and technology has afforded the world.
Which brings me to shock number two of the summer; despite the sheer helplessness of these individuals, the majority of Georgians oppose funding state-assisted aid for which refugees might be eligible. As one coworker explained to me, “refugees take heat from both sides—you have Democrats who think aid should go to suffering Americans, and you have Republicans who think welfare itself should be cut down to the bare minimum.”
I learned all this during a summer when unaccompanied minors were flooding the border by the tens of thousands from Central America, causing nation-wide heartache and debate over what to do with them. Congress remains hopelessly divided on the matter, having pushed the question of funding aside for its five-week summer recess. The folks at Refugee Resettlement in Atlanta await that decision with abject fear about what the future holds.
More than anything, this summer I learned how very complex the issue of poverty is. Most all the clients I served likely will live below the poverty line for the rest of their lives. Although the agency succeeds with an 80% self-sufficiency rate (meaning 80% of clients do not depend on it for economic aid past 90 days of their arrival), to lift these clients out of poverty is an impossible goal. Nearly all who come speak no English, and must start work immediately, mostly making minimum wage in a chicken processing plant just outside Atlanta. They can live relatively comfortably, compared to their former lives in camps; but life is not easy for them in a strange country with a vastly different culture. To add to their woes, Georgia was one of the few states to reject the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, so many (probably most) refugees in the area fall in the gap that makes too much money for Medicaid, but not enough to qualify for the federal exchange subsidy provided the by Affordable Care Act. So, after the three months of Medicaid the government allots them, they are left without access to affordable healthcare.
Refugees are one small population in the amorphous and overwhelming community of poor throughout Georgia, the United States, and the rest of the world. After about a month of reflection on the issue, I remain overwhelmed, to say the least. If these persons, who have fled their homes due to persecution, cannot find aid from those who can afford to give it, and have fates that are tied up in the hands of decision-makers with narcissistic political agendas, where does that leave the rest of the poor in the United States? What about the poor whose situations result from mistakes, such as drug addiction, that they may have made previously but have now overcome or are seeking to overcome? What about individuals who were previously incarcerated? It would be easy to declare the situation of poverty beyond resolve. For now, though, I’ve decided to continue to try and learn, to reflect, to empathize, and to do what I am able. This will involve absorbing as much information as I can about the multi-faceted problem our country faces, and to try as best I can to help those who need it the most. I have learned that awareness, coupled with a determination to spread knowledge of the problem of poverty in the United States, is the first step toward avoiding poverty.