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Recession Forces US State Agencies to Cut Back on Aid to Refugees

In 2009, approximately 75,000 refugees resettled in the United States. As a result of the global economic downturn, U.S. resettlement agencies across the United States are coping with more refugees looking for work at a time when unemployment in the United States remains high. The lack of jobs available in the Midwestern state of Iowa has forced several refugee resettlement programs in that state to close their doors.

As the Vietnam war drew to a close in 1975 by the defeat of the U.S. backed government of South Vietnam, tens of thousands of Vietnamese fled their war-torn country in search of a new life in the West.

In the U.S., then President Gerald Ford asked for help from state governments to provide a new home for some of those refugees.

The state of Iowa answered that call. Since 1975, more than thirty thousand refugees from around the world have come to Iowa.

"In the early part of the program through the mid eighties they were really Southeast Asians, and then in Iowa in particular, in 1993 and then through the early 2000's, it was primarily Bosnians. And then again as that program cycled down, we started seeing more coming in from Africa, and then in more recent years, our largest group have been the Burmese who are coming out of Thailand out of refugee camps or out of Malaysia. Bhutanese and Iraqis those make up the three largest groups," said John Wilken, the Chief of the Iowa State Bureau of Refugee Services.

Abdullahi Hiret fled Somalia in 1991. He lived in a refugee camp in Kenya until he arrived in Des Moines, Iowa's State Capitol, in 2007. "America is a very nice place. We enjoy it. Right now my kids are in school. When we come, no one knows nothing. But all of them now… I have six girls, four of them are in school now," he said.

Hiret says Lutheran Services of Iowa, one of three refugee resettlement agencies in the state, was instrumental in helping his family transition to life in the United States. The organization met them at the airport, helped them find an apartment, guided them through sign up for services, and assisted in placing Hiret in a job with Citigroup financial company. "For the last… up to now, I depend on Lutheran," he said.

Six months into his tenure at Citigroup, the economy sharply declined, and Hiret lost his job. "The economy hasn't helped the resettlement program for anybody. It's been a real challenge, and the US resettlement program is predicated on early employment, and when that doesn't happen, resources get stretched really thin," he said.

Iowa is not alone. Across the United States, agencies are struggling to place recent arrivals in new jobs, which help them become self-sufficient.

The U.S. State department provides 90 days of financial assistance to refugees looking for work, which in previous years was enough time for many to become employed. Now, resettlement agencies across the United States say many refugees remain unemployed for four to six months, if they can find work at all. While they continue the job search, the amount of financial assistance refugees needs increases.

Jill Stuecker is Refugee Program Director at Lutheran Services of Iowa. She says the amount of money the agency gets from the U.S. State Department for each refugee they resettle isn't enough. "The reimbursement rate to resettle refugee families is grossly inadequate to provide the services to families. But in addition to that, the resources that we were able to provide to families given the staffing that we had just wasn't enough to provide families the high quality of service they deserved," she said.

In January, both Lutheran Services and John Wilken's Bureau of Refugee Services announced they would end their refugee resettlement programs in the state of Iowa. "Our last families will arrive at the end of this month and we will phase out the services that we provide to them. But by September 30th that part of the program will cease," he said.

Together, Lutheran Services of Iowa and the Iowa State Bureau of Refugee Services helped 85 percent of the refugees who have resettled here since 1975.

The only agency that plans to continue resettlement is Catholic Services, which had previously partnered with Lutheran Services. "I think that if we want to bring people to a safe place, we should have enough funding and enough networking to secure that that is going to happen," said Sol Varisco, the program director overseeing the agencies refugee program.

To meet that goal, Catholic Services plans to resettle about one hundred refugees in Iowa in the coming year, down sharply from previous years, and only a small fraction of the 80,000 new refugees expected to come to the United States by 2011.