For Refugees, Recession Makes Hard Times Even Harder
By Erik Eckholm
The New York Times, January 30, 2009
Salt Lake City — After escaping violence in Burma and spending 27 years in the bamboo huts of a United Nations camp in Thailand, Nyaw Paw, 33, arrived in the United States last August to face the traumatic adjustment and cultural vertigo known to every refugee.
But with high rents, lagging federal aid and now a recession that is drying up entry-level work, the transition has become harder than ever, refugee workers say. Overwhelming housing costs are its starkest symptom. Many new arrivals spend 90 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities, leaving them virtually no disposable income and creating enormous hardships.
Ms. Nyaw Paw, who was placed in Salt Lake City with her two sons, ages 6 and 13, has scraped together the $600 rent on their one-bedroom apartment from federal payments that ended in December. Now, her only income is a welfare grant of about $500 a month; a private aid agency fills the gap.
Ms. Nyaw Paw has tried for traditional starter jobs, like motel housekeeping, but no one is hiring here. Her life demands such frugality that she washes the family clothes in the bathtub rather than feeding quarters to the machine down the hall.
'I think about the rent every minute,' Ms. Nyaw Paw said through a translator, 'and I dont know what Ill do when the aid programs run out.'
Poor refugees like low-income Americans can apply for rent subsidies, which require that recipients spend 30 percent of their income on rent, with the federal government picking up the rest. But in Salt Lake City, there is a two-year waiting list, and it is longer in many other cities.
Starting in February, in the first program of its kind, Utah plans to soften the huge and growing burden of housing costs by providing rent subsidies to recently arrived families for up to two years. The money is being drawn from unspent federal welfare reserves. Under the welfare reforms of 1996, states can use the federal grant flexibly for families that already qualify for welfare, mainly single-parent families like Ms. Nyaw Paws. For them, such help will make a world of difference.
Refugees arrive in the United States with a one-time State Department grant of about $450 a person and temporary help from a private agency to assist them toward economic self-sufficiency.
Apart from a number of Iraqis who arrive with professional degrees, most refugees these days arrive from Africa and Asia with little education or experience of Western life, and no relatives in this country to help.
Federal aid for refugee resettlement has not risen with the cost of living, state welfare programs are skimpier than before and low-income housing is ever scarcer. Meanwhile, the jobs that refugees have often ridden to success, like working in warehouses and hotels, are disappearing or being filled by people laid off from other jobs.
'People are hurting here, often spending 85 to 90 percent of their incomes or more on rent, and they can hardly do anything else,' said Gerald Brown, who was recently appointed Utahs first director of refugee services.
Utah takes in about 1,000 refugees a year, and recently they included a preponderance of Burmese, Nepali Bhutanese, Iraqis and Somalis. During home visits to four families, Mr. Brown said, he found to his dismay that none had the heat on, saving on utility bills in this chilly city among snow-covered mountains; babies and grandparents alike wore heavy coats and wool hats.
The International Rescue Committee, one of 10 private groups that the State Department pays to usher refugees through their first months, has provided some furniture, toys and basics like detergent. Food stamps enable them to eat. But Ms. Nyaw Paws older boy has begged in vain for a computer; other families with infants say they cannot afford diapers, and many of the thousands of refugees living in Salt Lake City cannot even think about going to a movie.
Utah will also use part of its welfare fund to enable the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services to provide advice and emergency aid to families for two years, rather than the current six months, which has proved too brief for many dislocated arrivals.
'The most vulnerable time for refugees is the first year or two,' said Patrick Poulin, local resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee. 'A good number make it on their own over time, but these new programs will accelerate that.'
The housing plan has drawn no significant opposition in Utah, which is generally seen as friendly to refugees. But the size of the American refugee program, which admitted about 60,000 people last year and is widely regarded as advancing humanitarian and foreign policy goals, has been questioned by some. Critics say the United States allows in too many people who are surely going to require public aid yet have alternative places to live for example, Ms. Nyaw Paw, by this argument, could have remained in Thailand.
'We are much too permissive about letting refugees in,' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that favors reducing immigration.
Refugee admissions, Mr. Krikorian said, should be held 'to the very small number of people who dont have and wont have any place else to go.'
Once people are admitted, he said, they should receive the necessary help, and he had no problem with Utahs new rental aid.
Lul Omar of Somalia, who keeps her head covered by a scarf and her fingertips dark with henna, is scraping by in Salt Lake City. After seeing her husband killed in their home, she fled to Saudi Arabia and then to a United Nations camp in Egypt. She and her seven children, a lanky crew ages 4 to 15, arrived here in October 2007.
The International Rescue Committee helped Ms. Omar find an older, small four-bedroom house, which she has decorated with a few plastic flowers. The monthly rent of $1,095, she said, 'is the biggest problem I have.'
She works eight hours a day, at $6 an hour, putting price stickers on used clothing at Deseret Industries, a Mormon Church version of Good Will Industries. To get there from her home, she must take two buses and a tram, more than an hour each way. She is grateful for the work, but her slender earnings caused her welfare payment to drop, to $385 a month.
'We cant buy clothing or even soap,' Ms. Omar said, explaining that she relies on charity for such necessities.
'I feel so bad,' Ms. Omar said. 'The kids are always asking me for a little bit of money so they can buy a soda after school, but usually I dont have any.'
Ms. Nyaw Paw, an ethnic Karen who still wears blouses she embroidered in the Thai camp, recently learned that the new rent-aid program could give her a few hundred dollars more each month, reinforcing the reasons she applied to come to the United States in the first place: to give her children opportunities.
'If I got that extra money,' she said, 'Id save it in the bank, for the kids when they get older.'
Acknowledging the forced drabness of life today, she added that the money would provide a few comforts. 'Maybe theyll want to go out with friends,' she said.