Congress looks to all but cripple funding for refugee-assistance programs.
Min Oo spent the first 14 years of his life in a refugee camp. His Burmese family had fled to Thailand from the repressive military junta ruling their native Myanmar before he was born. During the years they were in the camp, they slept in a wooden tent and received scant rations of oil, salt and rice every month to live on. To get meat or earn some money, his dad would risk his life by sneaking outside camp to hunt wildlife and cut firewood. “If the guards caught you, they’d bash your face with their gun,” Oo recalls.
Little did Oo know that his past would make for a classic Amerian success story. Three years ago, Oo, his parents and little brother arrived in Philadelphia as part of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. One of the first Burmese families to arrive in the city, they settled in South Philly.
But they didn’t do it alone. When the family first arrived in the U.S., they were met by representatives from the Nationalities Services Center, one of three refugee resettlement agencies in Philadelphia. Using federal funds for assistance to new refugees, NSC provided the family with a furnished apartment, some pocket money and help navigating paperwork and bureaucracy to gain access to employment, health care and education. “They help us to get everything,” Oo says.
Now, resettlement agencies like NSC are suddenly in danger of losing their cash flow, as a savings-conscious Congress eyes cuts of up to 45 percent to the Migration and Refugee Assistance budget, currently at more than $1 billion. “It’s looking bad,” says Danielle Bolks, special projects manager for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va. “[Budget cuts] could affect people’s abilities to serve clients when they first arrive, and people’s jobs at the local level as well.” Currently, the Department of State provides agencies $1,800 per refugee to cover initial housing and administrative and job-hunting tasks.
“We understand the economic climate is very contentious,” Bolks adds, “but we feel like this program is imperative.”
It was only last Wednesday that the agencies learned how dire their position was, so rather than sit back and wait for the cuts to come rolling in, the NSC sprang into action. On Friday, staff members, volunteers and refugees holed up in the group’s Arch Street headquarters to let Pennsylvania’s legislators know they weren’t going down without a fight.
About 30 people gathered for an afternoon shift, crowded in a small conference room writing, typing and licking envelopes to send off to legislators in Washington about the importance of resettlement programs. In another room, some more volunteers worked the phones to convey a similar message. A rudimentary English as a Second Language class of recent arrivals even spent a lesson laboring to craft their own personal letters asking lawmakers to preserve funding.
Akberom Mehretab was one of them. Mehretab, 55, is a refugee from Eritrea who fled the country in the 1980s during its war for independence from Ethiopia. He spent years living in a camp on the border between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, finding work teaching life skills to his peers. “They came by drought, famine and war,” he recalls. In 1997, he was admitted to Germany as a refugee, and in 2009, he came to America to marry his long-time Eritrean girlfriend, who had resettled in Philadelphia. Fresh off the plane, he went to NSC to work on his English and soon began volunteering to translate and help other Eritreans navigate American culture. “For an Eritrean family who comes from a rural area, it is too difficult,” he says. “It is ridiculous for them.” He shudders to think how families could adapt if agencies like NSC weren’t there to help. “If they’re not here?” he wonders. “It is too difficult.”
The Nationalities Service Center is diversified enough in funding and programming that it wouldn’t be in danger of closing, says Executive Director Dennis Mulligan, but services for refugees would be sharply curtailed, most likely by admitting fewer in the first place. Of the some 80,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2010, about 450 were placed in Philadelphia by NSC; the other local agencies, HIAS and Council and the Lutheran Children and Family Service, helped out with a few hundred more. About 35,000 refugees have established themselves in the city since resettlement programs were formalized in the early 1980s.
“My view is it’s pretty short-sighted to propose cuts of this kind,” Mulligan says, noting that refugees are part of a larger wave of immigration responsible for upcoming Census results, expected to show that Philadelphia has gained population over the last decade for the first time since the 1950s. And, he says, refugees in particular are renowned for their entrepreneurship and knack for turning around troubled areas of cities. “Philadelphia has continued to be re-energized by refugees,” Mulligan says, citing the Vietnamese shops and restaurants on Washington Avenue, African commercial corridors in West and Southwest Philly and the burgeoning “Little Baghdad” of newly arrived Iraqis in the Northeast as three areas of the city where refugees have contributed to revitalization.
Big cuts to these agencies, Mulligan continues, would signal that the U.S. is backing away from its commitment to help the less fortunate. “It’s a retreat from a very important part of American policy and values if we pull back from offering refuge to people who have been persecuted,” he says.
Washington has yet to respond, but NSC is hoping that local representatives here will be sympathetic to their plight. For recent arrivals like Oo, now 17 and a senior at South Philly High, it’s hard to imagine a nation unwelcoming to his countrymen. “On the plane, I thought my dream would become truth,” he says, decked out in gauged earrings and a wispy mustache. “I’m very, very lucky to come to the U.S. Later on, I get out of college and I help people,” says Oo, who hopes to go to community college next year to improve his English before transferring to a four-year college and pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. “My dream is to make a community of Burmese people to live together.”