Sunday, August 17, 2014

The life of a refugee: fleeing forced labor, finding financial limbo

In her home country, the military used to make Nang Doi sew uniforms, sheets, curtains and upholstery for them. They wouldn’t pay her, and if she didn’t work, they would fine her. Other refugees from the area say the consequences were much worse: beatings, jail, sometimes rape. Doi was forced to work simply because she is Christian. She lived in a village in the Kachin state of northern Burma, also called Myanmar, a Buddhist country, where Doi says she was the only seamstress. Doi was born with a painful vascular malformation, called Hemangioma, on her right thigh. This made it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time. It made it difficult for her to work.

When she fled her village, Doi says the military followed. So without telling her parents, Doi escaped to Malaysia. But the thing about refugees is that often when they flee to neighboring countries, the conditions in those places are not much better than what they came from.

“Most refugees flee by land,” said Sarah Ivory, director of immigration and refugee programs for Church World Service in Greensboro. “So most refugees in the world are housed in countries, bordering countries that produce refugees, meaning they’re not much better than where they’ve come from. And in fact, sometimes much more dangerous.”

After making her case to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Doi was granted refugee status in the United States. She arrived in Greensboro, N.C. in August 2013. Staff from Church World Service’s Greensboro refugee resettlement program greeted her at the airport. They had an apartment, food and employment classes all ready for her. A case manager was assigned to help Doi with whatever she needed to get settled. When she needed multiple surgeries on her leg, Church World Service helped get her Medicaid extended beyond the eight-month period refugees are given on arrival. Without the surgeries, Doi, who is 32 years old, would likely face a lifetime of living on disability. Now she has hopes of becoming a famous fashion designer.

Doi is one of about 70,000 refugees, or about half of one percent of all refugees, who are allowed in the U.S. each year. Church World Service resettles about 250 to 300 of those in the Greensboro area. Two other agencies also work nearby.

Earlier this summer, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, shifted $94 million from refugee programs and services to help deal with unaccompanied minors crossing the border. Ivory was afraid she would have to cut staff. And with a staff of only 14 employees and AmeriCorps members, losing people can significantly affect the work they do.

ORR recently restored $22.5 million of the money back to refugee programs and services. But a new budget has to be approved soon.

“Supplemental funding is needed not only to replenish what has already been re-programed but also to make sure there is sufficient funding for next year,” Ivory said. “Because if they don’t significantly increase the overall budget for ORR next year, we’ll be in the exact same situation just in another six months.”