Back to the future: New wave of refugees lacks family connections for support

For many years, Minnesota’s refugee resettlement efforts have been synonymous with family reunification. Established Somali, east African and Hmong community members have sponsored family members to relocate here. Minnesota hasn’t been getting what are known as “free” cases, refugees who come to the United States on their own without a family member or relative to sponsor them.

That is changing. The State Department put a moratorium on most refugee-family-reunification requests more than a year ago, stemming from a fraud investigation in Africa. The moratorium has significantly slowed the number of refugee referrals to Minnesota. So, for the first time in years, Minnesota will start receiving free cases again. They will include more refugees from Burma and Bhutan, people who will have small support communities.

Minnesota’s five refugee resettlement programs (see related material, at right) will have to gear up and start recruiting volunteers like they haven’t done in years. Rachele King, director of refuges services for the Minnesota Council of Churches, said refugees arriving with no local family will need more direct support. They don’t have somebody who has been saving money for them for the past several years. They don’t have anybody who will help them register their kids in school or suggest the best place to buy groceries.

“For family reunification cases, we are more like a safety net and a guide,” she said. That will change as the free cases arrive. “Now, it is urgent.”

Individuals, congregations sought
The Minnesota Council of Churches has proposed taking 75 refugees in the free-case category in the coming fiscal year, a number yet to be approved. It is recruiting people to collect and assemble welcome kits, deliver furniture or sponsor a shoe spree to make sure refugees get appropriate winter footwear. It also is looking for congregations willing to be primary refugee cosponsors, a three- to four-month commitment, she said.

Here’s the pitch: “Right now there is an opportunity for congregations to make a significant impact on the lives of their new neighbors,” she said. “In doing so, their congregational life will be impacted more than they can ever imagine in a positive way.”

From the 10 years between October 1998 and September 2008, Minnesota received 34,261 refugees, or on average more than 3,400 a year. The top three countries of origin are Somalia (14,363 or 42 percent of the total); Laos (5,228, or 15 percent); and Ethiopia (4,210 or 12 percent).

For the 10 months of the current federal fiscal year, Minnesota has received 719 refugees — on pace for fewer than 900 annually, well below the state average.

Moratorium on reunification program
That’s because the U.S. State Department put a moratorium on the family reunification program in March 2008. The State Department began investigating suspected fraud in the program, notably in Kenya.

The State Department did DNA tests on people seeking refugee status as a family. (It did not do DNA tests on the presumed U.S. relatives, but rather tested everyone in the refugee camp who claimed to be part of the same family.) The review found problems. Tests were “only able to confirm all claimed biological relationships in fewer than 20 percent of cases (family units),” the State Department said.

According to the February web article, the State Department is working with the Department of Homeland Security to find better ways to verify family relationship claims. They likely will include DNA testing. The family reunification program in Africa remains suspended until the new program is created.

Chuck Johnson, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), said Minnesota has proposed accepting 2,000 refugees in the coming fiscal year. Half of those would be free individuals.

Minnesota will still get some family reunification under exceptions to the moratorium. For instance, Tonya Cook, resettlement coordinator for World Relief Minnesota, said some refugees from former Soviet Union countries with local family ties still are getting approved. Another program called Visa 93 allows for reunification.

Refugee categories and counting can get confusing. The State Department also has an in-between category of “free with geographic preference,” she said. For example, that would cover someone from Bhutan who might have a local connection, but that potential “sponsor” could also be a relatively new arrival. That person would not able to provide as much support as someone more established.

New arrivals
Amanda Smith, refugee resettlement coordinator for International Institute of Minnesota, said the agency’s first two free cases just arrived on Tuesday. One family is from Ethiopia and had been living in Lebanon for the last three years. The other family is Eritrean, and has lived in an Ethiopian refugee camp for the last eight years.

If this were a typical family resettlement program, the International Institute staff would have a sit-down meeting with the local sponsoring relative and enter into an agreement. They would go through a list of things needing to be done. Were they able to find housing? Could they provide food for the first 30 days until the food support started? Could they provide transportation?

“Usually the family member was excited and was willing to go above and beyond what they needed to do to help their family resettle,” Smith said. With the free cases arriving, “housing is the biggest concern.”

The International Institute has said it could take 275 refugees in the coming fiscal year, with approximately half of them free cases, numbers yet to be confirmed. It is trying to build up its volunteer base and to work with more area churches, Smith said.

World Relief’s Cook said her organization would start small, with 50 free cases. (It requested a 10-person pilot test last year, and the first free refugees from that group will arrive in September.) The agency needs to do more networking with leaders in ethnic communities and other social service agencies to build support for the new arrivals who have fewer supports, she said.

“It is a sea change,” she said. “And it is more work on our part — to do more recruiting, more training and more matching.”

Scott Russell writes about Minnesota’s nonprofit sector.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/31/2009 - 09:17 pm.

    My church in Portland was involved in refugee settlement, and so I know that the organization that coordinated sponsorships for refugees owned a large, sprawling furnished house downtown. New arrivals without family members in town lived there until their sponsors found other housing for them.

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