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Mohammad Ali Musawi

Welcome to America refugees, now get to work

Refugees to the US are expected to be self-sufficient in 90 days [al-Araby al-Jadeed]

Date of publication: 24 September, 2015

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Refugees arriving in US are faced with the challenge of becoming self-sufficient within 90 days in a new country and culture.

Last week, President Barak Obama announced through the White House press secretary that the US intends to admit up to 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year in response to the refugee crisis that has recently overwhelmed Europe.

The United States annually admits between 50,000 and 70,000 refugees from countries such as Iraq, Burma, Bhutan and Somaila, however since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the US has only admitted 1494 Syrian refugees according to State Department figures.

Refugees usually face lengthy security and background checks by US authorities even after undergoing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) registration process, which means many languish in limbo while they wait for a result.

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the US has only admitted 1494 Syrian refugees

"The process to bring refugees here is careful and deliberate," a State Department official told reporters last week, adding: "It takes between 18 to 24 months between when a refugee is referred to us [by the UNHCR] and when they - if approved, when they end up arriving in the United States".

"Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States," said another State Department official.

However, the "lucky ones" that do make it to the US are often faced with the difficult challenge of becoming financially self-sufficient in a new country where they usually do not know the language and culture within 90 days.

Refugee resettlement

Once a refugee is accepted and authorised to travel to the US, they are allocated to one of a 180 resettlement centres across the US run by nine voluntary agencies, which help new arrivals settle in, find accommodation and work in their first three months.

Prior to a refugee's arrival the resettlement centres arrange appropriate accommodation, which is usually a house or apartment rented directly from the market, and which the centres furnish and stock with essential household items and food.

The rent, utilities and food are paid for by the $1125 provided by the government to each refugee as welcome money, which refugees and resettlement agencies have to stretch as far as possible.

The US resettlement programme is "chronically underfunded" by the government

A single refugee who arrives to the US will have to depend on that amount until he or she becomes employed, which could take several months, while larger refugee families have more of a buffer as each member of the family receives the same amount in welcome money.

The agencies also sign the refugees up to all the government benefits that they are eligible to receive such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, known as food stamps and health coverage among other services, which are very limited compared to welfare benefits offered in Canada and a number of European countries.

According to a resettlement worker who wished to remain anonymous, the US resettlement programme is "chronically underfunded" by the government despite providing an essential service to the tens of thousands of refugees arriving in the US every year.

The programme also pales in comparison with refugee services in other developed countries.

Get to work

Within three months of a refugee's arrival to the US, the various funding streams available to them dry up, forcing them to go out on their own in their new environment.

"The US resettlement programme reflects the American attitude of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," said a resettlement worker who wished to remain anonymous.

Refugees are also expected to pay back the airfare for their flight to America, to which they sign a promissory note upon arrival.

"I signed papers stating that I'll pay back the airfare for mine and my family's flight here from Amman," said Hazim Kadhim, an Iraqi refugee who arrived in the US less than a month ago.

Hazim who now works with his brother - who also arrived as a refugee several years ago - in a small Arabic grocery store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he had to repay the full amount over 44 months.

Those thinking about coming here need to prepare themselves. You're mistaken if you think you're going to paradise.

"I will have to pay $122 dollars a month, and although I've got three or six months until I have to make payments, I feel that it's a burden on my shoulders," Hazim added.

Ahmed (not his real name) is a Syrian asylum seeker in the US who explained that while refugees received some services and assistance, although limited, people who apply for asylum from within the country barely receive any assistance.

Ahmed was visiting family in Michigan when Syrian regime forces stormed his Damascus neighbourhood, leaving him and his wife with no option but to apply for asylum.

"They put me on Medicaid and food stamps for 6 months, but I had to find myself a place to stay which my relatives helped pay for. Even when I found a job, I was dependent on my relatives because my salary only covered half of my family's expenses. I had a very hard time," Ahmed told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Those thinking about coming here need to prepare themselves. You're mistaken if you think you're going to paradise. This is a country for people who want to work," he added.

Resilience and hope

However, despite the hardships, the refugees and asylum seekers that have spoken to al-Araby al-Jadeed believe that their hard work will pay off and that they are finally being treated with dignity.

"The difference between here and Syria is that here they treat you like a human, whereas in our country you're nothing," said Ahmed.

"My best experience here is the respect I get from all the services in the country. I've been treated as any other citizen, also the opportunities of working and education," said Hassan Ali, a Syrian refugee who has been in the US since 2008.

The difference between here and Syria is that here they treat you like a human, whereas in our country you're nothing

Hassan believes that the Syrian refugees that the Obama administration has promised to admit over the next year will be welcomed in America and will have good opportunities to rebuild their lives.

"I want them to experience what I have experienced here," said the young Syrian who currently works as a pharmaceutical technician in a large hospital in Albuquerque.

"I am Syrian and I know what they are [cap]able of and I know they are going to provide a lot for this country," added Hassan.

Meanwhile, despite the limited government funding received by refugee resettlement agencies, they have called for 100,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted into the US instead of the 10,000 pledged by the President, which they have described as "not enough".

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