65.5 million. One person out of every 113 people in the world. These statistics represent the number of people who have experienced forcible removal and displacement from their home countries. They leave their homelands out of a deep and well-founded fear for their lives, leaving their families and livelihoods behind. Most of these refugees dream of one day returning home, yet most of the time that option is neither safe nor feasible. They must find a new country to take them in, resettle, and begin a new life. Less than one percent of refugees in desperate need of resettlement will ever receive the opportunity to resettle in one of the 36 countries who accept displaced persons. Although finding a country to resettle in has proven a long and strenuous process, refugees’ struggles do not end once they arrive in their new country. They continue to face a life of discrimination and many are forced into lives of poverty, regardless of their education or wealth in their home country.
This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to partner faces, names, and personal stories with these appalling statistics. I interned with Commonwealth Catholic Charities [CCC] in Richmond, Virginia, in the Refugee Resettlement department. This department provides support services for refugees including airport pick-up upon arrival, housing placement and furniture, case management, school enrollment and supervision, health support, language classes, and employment services.
The main goal of resettlement is economic self-sufficiency and a reduction in reliance on state welfare. Once they arrive in the United States, only two months of low-income housing costs are available to refugees. They are immediately enrolled in SNAP or food stamps, TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and other social service benefits, thus entering the United States in a state of poverty. After the initial two months, refugees must find a means to pay for their rent and pay the government back for their flights to the United States. This is where the employment specialist I worked closely with comes into play.
Securing a stable job with an adequate wage is crucial for refugees becoming self-sufficient and escaping poverty. Yet the process of gaining this meaningful employment is extremely difficult. As employment specialists, we worked with refugees and employers to provide job orientation, employment assessment, and job placement. The means of obtaining employment in the US and the professional norms that are required and expected are sometimes completely foreign to these newly-arrived men and women. It is a step-by-step process and requires continual reminders at the beginning.
Although many refugees arrive with a variety of skills, degrees, languages, and expertise, they are, for the most part, forced into what my supervisor called “survival jobs.” A “survival job” is an unskilled, low-paying job that one can acquire quickly. In Richmond, this typically means factory and hotel housekeeping jobs that pay $9.50-$10/hour. Their take home pay covers their rent and does not provide them with money for any other expenses. As a result, they must stay on government-provided social services and maintain their poverty status.
During my time at CCC in the employment services office, I saw the stigmatization, prejudice, and discrimination toward refugees in this country. Refugees with Masters or PhDs, perfect English skills, and even some with experience working with the U.S. Embassy or U.S. contractors struggled to find even the simplest of office work. Most cannot even gain interviews for these jobs, even though they meet every qualification listed. They are then forced into factory jobs until they have the money to go back to school and receive their degrees again, but this time in America. My supervisor indicated that she normally waits until after the employer has said that jobs are available for her client before giving her clients’ names, as they are not typical American names. Most of the time she tried to leave out that they were refugees. Some employers will reverse course and have ‘no jobs available’ upon hearing a foreign name or that the client is not from the United States. A trend has appeared lately where companies are slowly cutting back the hours on employees that do not speak any or very little English. How are refugees supposed to escape the poverty they entered into when they arrive here or gain American experience if employers do not give them a chance? How can a country founded by immigrants now discriminate against them?
Even after a refugee gains employment, they face another significant barrier — transportation. Through numerous cases with clients this summer, I learned how important and essential reliable public transportation is. Richmond, sadly, does not have that. Refugees live in low-income housing complexes and do not have transportation besides walking and public transit. The Richmond bus system, GRTC, is built as if it is against having low-income people in the city. It does not run during early mornings or late nights when many low-paying jobs would occur and has very limited scheduling during the weekend. Having taken the bus personally, I can attest to the problems with this system.
One of our clients, a nineteen-year old boy completely on his own, desperately needed a new job. I helped him apply to job after job for all types of work for almost a month. Although replies to his applications were limited and his English skills caused a barrier, the biggest obstacle to gaining new employment was transportation. He has been saving up for a car, yet did not have enough to purchase one at the moment. We eventually found him a job 4 miles from his home that he could get and make decent money. The bus route he would have to take? Over an hour and a half, including a three-quarter mile walk. The lack of proper public transportation not only contributed to him not gaining employment for a month, but forced him to dig into his car savings to pay for rent and other necessities. This is not a unique case, as this became a reoccurring theme and struggle throughout my summer.
Before interning at CCC this summer, I knew recent policy changes with the new administration had affected refugee resettlement; however, I did not know the extent. Historically, the United States has led the way with global resettlement, with the Obama-era administration setting the cap at 110,000 refugees per year. Yet, in January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office, his administration established historic cutbacks on the number of refugees allowed in, reducing the cap to an all-time low of 45,000 refugees per year. More cuts are slated for next year. In addition, the new administration has implemented travel bans for countries that are some of the largest producers of refugees and a more stringent vetting process for refugees already facing a security check process that takes between 18-24 months. These policies have severely limited the number of refugees entering the United States this year. With the fiscal year set to end September 30, the Trump administration has announced its plans to set the cap at 25,000 refugees for the upcoming fiscal year.
This summer, I saw first-hand how these policies affected refugees, resettlement agencies, and the stigmatization surrounding refugees in the community. It is not as if only 25,000 refugees needed resettlement in the U.S. this fiscal year. As I stated before, only 1 percent of refugees in desperate need of resettlement are accepted into an asylum country. Even those who do have the opportunity to resettle here face hardships and a lack of adequate support from the government. Resettlement agencies have experienced a severe drop in new families, thereby creating budget reductions and cutbacks in department sizes. Along with these policies has come an increase in discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudice against refugees, making it harder for them to find jobs and places to live. We, the United States, are a country that has sacrificed and fought so that each person, no matter race or religion, would be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. What has happened?
The experiences and knowledge I have gained from this internship have made me more focused and motivated on how I can use my skills in the future to enact meaningful change in the world. It has helped me to realize more fully that people can be trying their absolute hardest to escape poverty, yet due to the institutions and prejudice in this country it is impossible for them to do so. We cannot, as a nation, put the blame on people in poverty for them not being able to escape it. We share some, if not most of the blame for keeping them there due to the policies and institutions we have created. I hope that through majoring in Policy Studies and one of my minors, Poverty and Social Justice, at Elon University, I can advocate and work towards policies that will benefit and provide aid to the people who need it most in this world: refugees, immigrants, and the incarcerated.
Editorial Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.