English Feature #7-34016 Broadcast August 21, 2000
Iowa, a mid-western American state best known for farming, has for a number of years welcomed refugees as a means of augmenting its labor force. In today's segment of New American Voices, the director of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services describes how his agency helps these newcomers adjust to their new life in America.
Most Americans would be surprised to learn that Iowa, in the heartland of the United States, is now home to thousands of Hispanics, Laotians, Vietnamese, Sudanese and Bosnians. Many of them fled persecution in their native land, and arrived in Iowa thanks to the state's active involvement in refugee resettlement. Wayne Johnson is director of the state's Bureau of Refugee Services. He says that when refugees are assigned to Iowa, his agency's first task is to find a sponsor - an individual or church or other volunteer group - that will take the refugees under its wing and oversee the details of their resettlement. The sponsor first of all leases a house or apartment for the incoming refugees. Wayne Johnson says that the sponsor and the Bureau, which provides the funding, work closely together to help the refugees.
"We also have a furniture program here in the Bureau, and the Bureau staff will set up the house or apartment, move in furniture, whatever. The sponsor and/or the bilingual staff person who has been assigned to the case will make sure that utilities are turned on, we will go grocery shopping, put groceries, soap, other things that are needed, we will put that in the house."
A bilingual Bureau staff person and the sponsor meet the refugee family at the airport, take them to the apartment, make sure that they're familiar with how everything works, and give them telephone numbers that they can call if they need help of any kind. At that point, says Wayne Johnson, the rest of the process unfolds pretty rapidly.
"Usually the next day the bilingual staff person will pick the family up, will take them to the social security office, register them for a social security card, if the children need to be enrolled in school we will accomplish that, they have a post-arrival medical exam that is scheduled and the bilingual staff person will usually take them to that appointment and translate for them, we bring them in to apply for food stamps and medical coverage, and typically also cash welfare assistance, even though that's just a temporary thing that's seen as a stepping stone."
Indeed, refugees are encouraged to become financially self-sufficient as soon as possible.
"The next step in the process is employment. We do an assessment of the family, what their skills are, what their educational background is, work history, what they think they might want to do - and we start to prime them, to coach them, encourage them on the benefits of early employment."
Typically, at least one person in the refugee family is employed within two months of arrival in Iowa. As to the kinds of work available, it depends on where in the state the refugees are resettled.
"A lot of the Bosnians, for example, are in construction, that's a very big employer, driving trucks - in one location, actually in two locations in the state we have training courses that prepare people to be truck drivers, small assembly line type of employment, where people maybe put together fuel filters for a car. Another big employer makes accessories for trucks. Many of the women start out at least in for example hotels or motels preparing rooms, some of them also work in major hospitals doing some of the same kind of things."
Despite all the assistance offered refugees by the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, there are people who in the end find it difficult, if not impossible, to adjust to their new life.
There are refugees who suffer from mental illnesses, there are others who suffer from the same maladies and problems that mainstream Americans suffer from. We have refugees who are alcoholics and who live in homeless shelters. The resources for folks who have these kinds of problems are basically the same resources that are available for anyone else in the community. But realistically there are just some folks who for one reason or another just have very big problems."
Next week on New American Voices, an Albanian refugee from Kosovo tells his story.