Three months in America
Hassan arrived in Texas on a hot May afternoon. It had been a long journey: 15 years growing up in Myanmar—Hassan uses Burma—followed by 17 in Malaysia, all to finally settle in Plano. When we meet, he has been living in America for three months.
“There were a lot of problems in Burma,” he says softly in his native language while an interpreter translates for him. “No job, no food, no money. There was nothing for me.”
Myanmar is a war-torn country, ravaged by years of brutal genocide committed by the country’s military against the Rohingya people, a group of Muslim Burmese. Tension between the Buddhist and Muslim populations has devastated the region while the government denies that genocide is occurring at all. The UN reported that as of late September, Bangladesh alone was sheltering 800,000 forcibly displaced Rohingya.
Hassan only has a handful of memories from his childhood in Myanmar. He primarily remembers seeing military day and night, soldiers stationed to control the fighting. Myanmar may be Hassan’s homeland, but he left sometime in the early 2000s, when thousands of villagers found themselves in the middle of conflict, facing strict curfews, looting and forced relocation. The Rohingya, who are being killed by the thousands even today, faced extortion and forced labor 17 years ago. It was during this time that Hassan relocated to Malaysia.
“Malaysia also has problems,” Hassan goes on. “It was not my country. It was not comfortable for me there.” In May 2017, 17 years since he first left Myanmar, Hassan arrived in America as a refugee to be with his sister and her family, who settled in Texas nine years ago. He is currently employed at a business that installs windows. After he leaves for work, his sister lingers with me.
While Hassan went to Malaysia, she spent her youth in Thailand. She admits she doesn’t know much about the Burmese conflict. It upsets her to read about it or watch the brutality play out on the nightly news. What she does know haunts her.
“They are torturing people. I remember people there saying, ‘I heard we are gonna be killed. Our country, they’re gonna take everything. If you don’t give money, you get out.’” She stops, momentarily scrambling for English. “Mother had a farm, such a big farm, worth $10,000. When I was little, that was a lot of money. Now, it’s nothing. They took everything.”
She is more familiar with America than her brother and speaks very good English. Her four children all attend Plano schools; two of them have never known another home.
“I don’t have an education, I don’t have a birth certificate and I couldn’t go to school. Now my life is very successful.” She pauses, smiling. “You get in trouble here, did you know you can call police and they will help? When I got here, I didn’t know anything, I would get lost, and they would help me.”
Hassan was settled in America by the Refugee Services of Texas (RST), a nonprofit organization. During the last fiscal year they settled 4,526 refugees across the state, 677 of them in DFW.
Hassan knows that he is extremely lucky. Successfully navigating out of a dangerous country, through the vetting program and to American soil is like winning the Powerball. According to the Migration Policy Institute, fewer than one percent of formally recognized refugees worldwide are resettled annually. For the majority of people out there, it just doesn’t happen.
Fluent in 30 languages
In the wake of the hurricanes that recently bashed the Atlantic coast and in anticipation of the end of the fiscal year, it was a strained autumn for RST. The new presidential administration meant budgets were shrinking, programs closing and staff scaling back.
“What’s painful for me is hearing refugees spoken about in the abstract,” RST’s President and CEO Aaron Rippenkroeger explains. “‘Refugee’ becomes a word instead of a person. A category, a faceless danger—that’s the association that’s made. But they aren’t dangerous people. There has never been a fatal attack in the U.S. connected to a refugee.
“These individuals have been through something horrific. Now they come to a completely different culture. These folks are survivors: resilient and determined. They want a better life. But those individual stories tend to get lost. Politics muddies the waters.”
RST has been settling refugee families in Texas since 1978. Though they were founded in Dallas and most of the board remains Dallas-based, offices have since opened in Austin, Amarillo, Fort Worth and Houston. Last year their staff was 150, but they’ve recently had to cut back on all fronts.
Aaron estimates that over half of RST’s employees are former refugees, all of whom have been through the vetting process and provide empathetic assistance with a side of cultural sensitivity to their clients. The organization itself is a mini melting pot.
“We have thirty languages on staff, which is fun. If we have a client to place who speaks a rare language, usually someone in one of our offices can help,” Aaron explains. Incidentally, he hails from Iowa cornfields. “There’s something very comforting about speaking your own tongue.”
Some of RST’s offices have a specialty; the Houston staff works with unaccompanied minors from Central America. The program was started so that parents already settled in Texas could apply to have their children brought safely to them out of very dangerous situations.
Without the program’s help, many minors have tried to make the trek themselves, but their chances of actually reuniting with their parents are very slim. Kids often end up being trafficked in the sex, labor or drug trades; many simply vanish.
“We were really excited to start the Central American minors program,” Aaron says. “But it’s being phased down and soon, it’ll be out completely. A lot of kids are going to be stuck.”
Thirty years in limbo
“People have images of Syrians arriving in Europe in trains by the thousands,” Aaron says ruefully. “It’s nothing like that anywhere. [Resettlement] is a slow, bureaucratic process.”
Before refugees become refugees, they are citizens of their homelands, forced to leave in order to avoid famine, war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, natural disaster, persecution—in short, death.
They cross into a neighboring country where they register with the UN as refugees. By the time someone is actually certified as a refugee with a case file and status card, years have passed since they first left home. At this point, strangers take over their destiny. Refugees wait in encampments with no control over where they might be sent. That’s all up to the countries who will receive them.
Before welcoming refugees, each country determines exactly how many they want to accept. In 2018, the U.S. is poised to drop that number from 110,000 to under 45,000 per year. The New York Times reported that this would be the lowest number since at least 1980. But mass displacement of refugees is at an all-time high. In fact, according to the UN Refugee Agency, 20 people are newly displaced every minute. Fifty-one percent of them are children.
Once the annual cap is decided, the U.S. Department of State starts vetting refugees, a process which takes at least two more years. Far and away, refugees are the most heavily screened of any travellers coming to the U.S. By the time they muddle through the entire process, children have been born in the refugee camps; they are a new generation who have never seen the land from which their parents fled. Perhaps they have lived their entire young lives as guests in one country, hoping to become residents of another. It isn’t uncommon for families to live in limbo for 30 years.
A job in 60 days
Let’s assume that a refugee is thoroughly vetted and their arrangements are made to bring their family over to the U.S. If they happen to be sent to Texas, RST works with them with one paramount goal: self-sufficiency. RST aims to place as many refugees as possible in jobs within 60 days of their arrival.
“We help them get settled into an apartment and work out a household budget with them and work on job placement,” Aaron lists off. “Our goal is to get them oriented culturally and financially and help them figure out transportation. If we can, we have a police officer meet them because for many of them, where they’re coming from, someone in a uniform is frightening. We want to help folks get over that as quickly as possible.”
The big benchmarks are the four and six month markers. Most of RST’s clients have a job by four months. Six months after arrival, 80 percent of refugees in Texas are completely self-sufficient. According to a June 2017 New American Economy report, refugees actually pay more into the economy than they ever received from the government. On average it takes a refugee just seven years to pay back what they have been given, and more.
With a perplexed laugh, Aaron adds, “It’s weird for me to talk about it in these terms. I want the humanitarian angle. But it’s important to note that refugees are an economic benefit for the U.S.”
Refugees are eligible to work from day one and because of their special circumstances are on a fast-tracked path to citizenship. They need a green card after a year and citizenship four years after that. Some are highly qualified people who, like everyone else, have to take the first entry-level job they can get. Doctors often work as janitors until they can be certified to work in their field. Once they are settled, refugees can pursue their careers again.
“It’s what they want. They’re here to become Americans and live in America. We had a guy in Houston, an Iraqi, who had been a very respected architectural engineer. He worked for us as a caseworker for a while until he got his certification in Texas,” Aaron recalls. “He’s about to be making a lot more money than I am.”
RST’s client base is perpetually shifting with the tenor of world conflicts. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, refugees were largely Vietnamese because of the U.S.’s vested involvement there. In recent years, RST has observed more refugees from former-Yugoslavia, Africa, Myanmar, Iraq, the Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
“We work with a spectrum of very different clients, from huge Burmese families who have spent decades in camps to an Iraqi doctor who is very qualified and very fluent in English,” Aaron says. RST has mastered a tailored approach to meet clients who have very unique needs. Housing is a classic example; it’s easier to find an apartment for a single person than finding one to accommodate a family of 10.
A family of four
The State of Texas had one of the best government resettlement programs in the country. However, the state closed the program in September 2016, after Governor Abbott, repeatedly citing security issues, lost a battle with the federal government for the right to refuse Syrian refugees. Though nonprofits still help refugees of all backgrounds settle here, Aaron was sorry to see Texas’ resettlement program go. RST’s work is more vital and more strained since they have shouldered the burden left in its absence.
However, RST has seen a groundswell of incredible compassion from the community. During the midnight hours of January 2017’s Muslim Ban, Executive Order 13769, refugees from places like Syria went from approved to unwelcome over the course of their flights. RST found themselves, and their clients, at the center of the storm.
One of RST’s chief concerns was a Syrian family of four with two small children. They arrived in New York just as the order was signed. For days, the family stayed at a hotel just outside of LaGuardia airport, wondering if they would be sent away.
But then various courts blocked the Muslim Ban. The family joined other refugees who were successfully ushered into the country. When they arrived, the RST staff weren’t the only ones celebrating.
“I was so struck by the way the general population stepped up,” Aaron remembers. “There were marches on the airports those first days. Our refugee families came through the airport and saw dozens of Americans waiting there with welcome signs. Lawyers were there working on their own time to help them.”
It has been a harrowing, unresolved year for RST but the work continues. “We’re still passionate about what we do and we do it well,” Aaron says. “We reflect the values of our country and Texas. Because we believe Texas is a wonderful place for a refugee.”