The Lucky Few: Refugee Resettlement in Colorado

The United Nations estimates there are over 13 million refugees in the world. Less than one percent will ever be resettled in a third country. The few who are selected for resettlement in the United States are expected to become economically self-sufficient in a matter of months. The young man passes around snapshots of his family – smiling men, sandal-clad and perspiring, posing next to thin women veiled in pastels. Twahiru, a 19-year-old refugee from Somalia, points out the faces of the people he left behind at the refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived for years before being resettled in Denver in August.

“These are my brothers and sisters; I hope to bring them here some day if God wishes it,” he said.

On this last day of a two-week, pre-employment course for refugees and asylum seekers, each student had a chance to share something about his or her native country – Iraq, Nepal, Cameroon, Somalia — though most of them will never be able to return safely.

Omar, 23, also from Somalia, spent nearly five years as a refugee in Nepal before finally being resettled in Colorado. He arrived in mid-December. Once he gets a Social Security number, Omar plans to move to Greeley for a job at the Swift meat-processing plant, where wages start at about $10 an hour.

“I was trying for so long to come here,” he said. “I couldn’t work (in Nepal), but here I can manage my money and manage my life.”

Each year about 1,100 refugees and asylum seekers are resettled in Colorado. Since 1975 the United States has accepted roughly 2 million refugees – about 40,000 of whom have resettled in Colorado. Refugees make up about 10 percent of Colorado’s foreign-born population and about 10 percent of the total legal migration to this country.

Although the United States accepts far more refugees than any other nation that offers resettlement, “the reality is that less than 1 percent of the refugees in the world are resettled in any given year,” said Paul Stein, director of Colorado Refugee Services Program, part of the Department of Human Services.

For the very lucky few, the journey begins much as Twahiru’s did when he and his family fled the violence in Somalia and landed at a refugee camp across the border in Kenya. Twahiru was eventually granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, meeting the criterion of having a well-founded fear of persecution in his homeland on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political belief or group membership.

Once designated for resettlement in the Unites States, Twahiru had to be reviewed and approved by the Department of Homeland Security. The voluntary agency that handled his case while he was still in Africa assigned Twahiru to a local organization, Ecumenical Refugee and Immigration Services, and a case worker who met him at DIA.

Refugees approved for resettlement in Colorado receive cash assistance and free housing for up to eight months. After that refugees are on their own to earn enough money to pay for rent and other expenses. Eventually every refugee must pay back the U.S. government for the money spent on travel to this country.

Krassin Gueorguiev is program coordinator and lead teacher at the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, which has offered WorkStyles, an intensive course on American employment culture for refugees and asylees, for 25 years. Gueorguiev says many refugees arrive with a utopian image of life in the United States, and the reality – that most of them barely scrape by – is a hard slap.

“We are fighting legends that surface in the different communities. … At one point in the class we ask them to write a letter to a friend thanking them for a gift, and they write something like, `thanks for the car.’ So they have very high expectations that the streets are paved with gold, and it’s a sharp reality.”

The trickiest part of preparing refugees for the American employment scene is converting their past experience and education to fit on American applications and resumes. Much of the first week is spent compiling personal data sheets that serve as templates for future job applications.

“It can be very difficult to document an individual’s work experience,” said Susan Gershwin, WorkStyles lead teacher. Exact dates and details can be hard to conjure when a person’s employment background is as a sheep herder in Eritrea or as a fish merchant in Somalia.

Case managers and employment specialists at the four refugee service agencies in Denver help newcomers get acclimated – enrolling their children in school, arranging medical care, pointing them to other social services, managing their immigration documents. All adult refugees take daily English classes and people of working age are encouraged to enroll in a pre-employment course like WorkStyles.

Sharon Saul, an employment supervisor at Ecumenical Refugee Services, says some of her clients have trouble becoming self-sufficient in eight months. But she adds that most refugees are anxious to begin their lives after years languishing in camps where there were no opportunities to work or to provide for their families.

“Once they start working, their stress starts to relieve a little because it starts to feel like they will actually make it here, that they have a life,” she said.

Omar and Twahiru are both eager to begin working and saving money – both are married with young children. Despite the culture shock and the occasional stabs of homesickness, they are grateful that out of millions of African refugees they were among the handful chosen to rebuild their lives in the United States.

Refugee admissions to the United States have declined over the past decade, both in terms of the maximum number of refugees permitted in one year – the ceiling – and the actual number of refugees resettled. In 2006 the ceiling for refugee admissions was 70,000, but only about 41,000 of those slots were filled. Rarely is the ceiling reached, and the remaining spots do not carry over to the next year. Between 1991 and 2003 there was an accumulated shortfall of 210,000 refugees that could have been settled here but were not, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

This fact is deeply troubling to Paul Stein, who says the shortfall is sometimes due to a lack of political will or an overcommitment on the part of the United States, which never develops the capacity to process the full number of refugees.

“Either way it’s a tragedy that those visas are not filled,” he said. “Because each one of them represents a life that could be saved and offered hope for the future.”

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