The age of the masked and the alone begins, we look for sinister states, a loss shall learning suffer before this circle of this sun be done, the palace birds of the new tyrants rise flying into the wounded sky, sky of catastrophe; help may be near, but remedy is far...
Fourth Elegy: “The Refugees” Muriel Rukeyser (1949)37
Unlike what we are told, there is no “immigrant and refugee crisis,” but a catastrophe, an ongoing mistreatment of displaced communities. The American-Jewish poet, Muriel Rukeyser, reminds us that momentary help that is devoid of long-term responsibility could prove to be more harmful and negligent than offering any kind of support. While providing short-term assistance is an important first step, particularly in thinking about the growing number of displaced communities in the world today, lasting solutions ask for more substantial involvement, dialogue and planning. To be sure, this is not a report that is based merely on an intellectual analysis; it drew on primary and secondary sources together with voices, frustrations and hopes of Houston immigrant communities in a way to clear this “sky of catastrophe” and brazen violence that goes unnoticed in America.
A number of opportunities exist on both local and national scales to build more humane systems to guide resettlement. The following list was compiled by incorporating the needs of agencies, community members and our own efforts in Houston to meet the emerging needs of families.
1. Federal Resettlement “Tracks"
While each of our new community members comes with a unique history and complex needs, several categories of cases continually exhibit recurring needs for support. Currently, new arrivals have no choice in determining the programs they utilize for assistance. By creating multiple tracks, families can be given the option to choose between trajectories that fit their needs. Choice is critical in allowing individuals to reclaim agency that the system has methodically taken away over the past four decades. Furthermore, federal entities are not the only ones who can build such systems, with massive opportunity existing for local communities, cities, and states interested in ensuring the long-term wellbeing of new arrivals.
Creating an option for single parents, and particularly single mothers, is first on the list of necessary alternative tracks. These families require an upfront investment that ensures the single provider is able to speak English, receive the emotional support of local community institutions, and make long term plans to care for the family. Financial assistance may be required for 10–12 months while those investments are made. In addition, arrangements must be made for children of single refugee parents to be placed into free childcare or afterschool care facilities. Existing infrastructure at schools and community centers must be leveraged for plans to be built prior to the arrival of these families.
Second, large families require the flexibility of additional case management and financial assistance. Young adults in those households should not be asked to forgo an education in order to support their siblings through perpetual minimum-wage employment. If education is not an option for these family members, vocational training programs or apprenticeships must be set up in order to avoid losing the long term productive capacities of these young refugees. In the past, ORR has funded employment programs that pay employers a supplemental wage for positions that offer training and long-term growth potential. Programs such as this must be offered for young adult members of large families in order create educational opportunities even amidst challenging circumstances.
Third, a differentiation must be made between refugees who arrive without educations and those who come with extensive scholastic records. Loan programs must be made available to individuals who require degree verification or entry into recertification programs. Community members who have gone through similar processes must be engaged to guide new arrivals through those often complex, bureaucratic systems. Personal mentorship can help ensure employment services are delivered in a sensitive manner, recognizing the significant mental anguish that comes from losing a lifetime of scholastic achievement in the process of migration.
2. Ongoing Dialogue as Input for Systems of Resettlement
Rather than being treated as “clients” who are expected to find a “survival job” and then disappear in the suburbs, refugees must play a central role in evaluating the degree to which systems are supporting their changing needs. Refugee communities should be invited to a democratic space where they are primarily responsible for and capable of identifying their own needs. Gatherings like this, held in major cities across the country, can facilitate the creation of surveys mirroring those collected nationally by ORR in order to paint a picture of long-term outcomes. It is unacceptable for the system of resettlement to operate without meaningful tools for ongoing dialogue and performance evaluation. Successful outcomes must be defined beyond the short-term model of rapid employment.
When we think about data with regard to the refugee population, we think merely about one particular perspective: data about refugees, their income level, employment rate and self-sufficiency status. To better inform local agencies and various policymakers, refugees should be encouraged to claim their voices and to take part in conversations about their experiences, challenges and changing needs. Much like the refugee consortium presently brings together all five resettlement agencies on a quarterly basis, such meetings will bring greater transparency and encourage different refugee communities to forge meaningful allegiances.
3. Ethical Engagement with Business Community
We have been exploring the use of digital systems to increase the number of opportunities refugees have in obtaining employment. While there is no easy way to guarantee all arrivals are perfect fits for all job openings, current systems unquestionably require greater levels of transparency.
Diversification of employment opportunities, in particular, is possible through digital tools. Employers who hire refugees should be highlighted publicly for the role they play in welcoming new arrivals. Business leaders would benefit from public recognition. In addition, refugees themselves should have access to this public list to better understand opportunities that might be available to them.
A variety of businesses might also benefit from offering special services to refugees. In addition to public recognition, gyms, restaurants, utility providers, and many other companies will benefit from engaging refugees as new clients. Much like the initial period of resettlement assistance, businesses who offer several months of free services stand to benefit from long-time customers from within the refugee communities.
4. Diversify Access to ESL
A standard must be set for all refugees to have real opportunities for English language training. The ability to communicate makes an immense impact on employment potential and emotional well-being. Steps can be taken both prior to arrival in the country and once refugees have begun their new lives to meet this standard.
Currently, more refugees are stranded living in camps across the world than ever before, presenting an opportunity for improving the circumstances of those arrivals prior to entering the country. Mirroring programs initiated in the early 1980s, refugees who are otherwise unengaged while waiting to leave a camp must be offered real opportunities for education and training. Intensive ESL can be provided to mitigate the numbers of refugees who never learn English after arrival. A variety of academic courses are also being developed and delivered directly to refugee camps. These programs should be permanent companions to any invitation extended to refugees for arrival in the U.S.
Locally, the funding mechanism for ESL limits the ability of qualified teachers to deliver instruction across the city. By directing funds through one organizational funnel, an unrealistic standard is set for a single organization to meet the needs of all refugee arrivals. A network of ESL courses offered at religious institutions, schools, and communities centers across the city must be combined with federally funded programs to reach as many newcomers as possible. A central digital database made accessible to agency staff and community members could accomplish this effectively.
The initial guidance of a family mentor or professional advisor can have a profound impact on the path of a refugee. This is the experience we have learned through the Houston in Motion community collaborative, which has created the opportunity for deep engagement between previously isolated communities spread across the city. Through a digital connection portal, we have set a three-year target of 100 percent matching for recent arrivals with local mentors. Mentors connected through our digital portal have assisted as English language partners, employment mentors for highly skilled arrivals and social adjustment partners. Through collaboration with agencies, service providers and community volunteers across the city, this target can ensure that no refugees struggle with challenges that could be easily overcome through introduction to local network connections.
7. Transportation Assistance
One of the most common barriers to employment is access to transportation. Several agencies across Houston have been actively working with donors to provide vehicles to recent arrivals. Donation programs to provide 500 vehicles for free each year can make a profound impact on the long-term outcomes of refugee arrivals. In addition, public transportation should be offered free of charge for refugees still adapting to life in the city. The system of buses and rail can open recent arrivals to corners of the city they would not otherwise have an opportunity to explore, while significantly increasing opportunity for employment.
8. The Critical Role of Arts and Culture
Cultural institutions around the city including museums, theaters, sports teams, and more should build special opportunities for refugee families to attend free of charge. A trip to the opera or ballet can be a memorable occasion, especially for young children, but also an opportunity for families to leave the stressful realities of rapid employment and cultural fear behind. Institutions interested in affirming their mission to reach diverse communities should be encouraged to extend invitations to refugee communities.
While exposure to Houston’s cultural sites is valuable, artwork made by refugees themselves creates an invaluable opportunity for refugee communities to voice their personal experiences. An investment must be made in opportunities for refugee community artists to show their work. As a tool to educate and an opportunity to heal, events that bring diverse communities together strengthen the capacity of Houstonians across the city to support new arrivals in their ongoing journey.
9. Free Loans for Education and Training
A necessary solution must be conceived for the contribution of no-interest loans to assist in the recertification and training process. Programs that couple loans with entry into training programs show promise for meeting the needs of refugees, employers and agency staff. Our experiences have shown that experienced employment mentors can play a critical role in ensuring that funds are used for meaningful programs and introducing refugees to new employment networks. While employment staff is limited to a short-term perspective, mentor matching programs are currently being run through digital tools at almost no cost across the globe.
Most importantly, we hope that these recommendations can be combined with others in open forums that place the needs of our community members at the center. Now more than ever, in the face of growing natural and political crisis, we must shape a common vision. There is no excuse for being unable to fulfill the longstanding ethical commitments of this country. Even if our history suggests that those commitments require an ongoing struggle, this pursuit is worth fighting for and defending to ensure we live in a country that liberates and sustains us all.