As humanitarian crisis looms at the U.S. border, Nashville's refugee resettlement services face severe cuts 

No Refuge

No Refuge

At first glance, Deq Omer Mohammed, Ahmed Mustafa and Abdirizsak Abdullahi Duale don't have much in common. Mustafa, an Iraqi national in his 30s who's fluent in English, wears a neat beard and preppy Western attire. Abdullah, 21, is a former student from Somalia with a shy smile and striped athletic shoes. Mohammed, handsome and middle-aged, wears leather sandals and plaid slacks, with a colorful scarf around his neck. He too hails from Somalia, but spent the past 20 years in an Ethiopian refugee camp.

The three men have known each other only a few months. But as they sit together in a small basement office in East Nashville's Edgefield neighborhood, its walls decorated with photos and African art, their common bond is obvious. All three escaped violence in their home countries that could have killed them. All are refugees placed by the U.S. government in Nashville, seeking a new life. And all are clients of an employment assistance program that aids displaced people like them — a service, like many others, that's now on the verge of financial crisis.

As Central American migrants continue to flow across the U.S.-Mexico border, legal refugees already living in Tennessee are bracing themselves for steep government funding cuts that may cause layoffs and collapse the service programs upon which they rely. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children and 39,000 women have been apprehended on the southern U.S. border this year, causing a political quandary for the Obama administration and placing an unprecedented strain on humanitarian groups.

Watching the situation warily is Kellye Branson, director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee's Refugee and Immigration Services. Her agency administers the employment-assistance program as well as other crucial resettlement services for Middle Tennessee's refugee population. She tells the Scene she is preparing for major challenges as Congress debates the president's proposals for handling the border crisis.

"The thought of losing some of the funding for these programs is really difficult," Branson says. "It's not only, 'How are we going to cover these expenses?' but 'How is this going to affect our clients?' "

Tennessee accepted more than 1,600 refugees in the last fiscal year, most from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Iran. While the bulk of Catholic Charities' services targets those groups, the organization also serves Cuban and Haitian nationals, victims of international trafficking, Iraqi and Afghan civilians who have been employed by the U.S. Armed Forces, and Amerasians (the legal term for individuals fathered by a U.S. citizen in Vietnam during the war in that region, and who have settled in the U.S.).

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, using the Tennessee Office for Refugees as an administrative conduit, currently provides almost half of Refugee and Immigration Services' annual budget, projected for 2014-15 at $3.3 million. Its share currently stands at approximately $1.52 million. An additional $1.1 million comes from the U.S. State Department, with the rest made up by a patchwork of sources, from the diocese, Catholic Charities USA and the United Way, to fundraisers.

That money must cover a wide portfolio of needs for Nashville's refugee population. According to Branson, more than $815,000 alone of her annual budget will provide direct assistance to clients, paying for rent, utilities, food, furnishings, clothes, bus tickets and other essentials.

Two weeks ago, however, to address the Central American migration, the Obama administration asked Congress for an additional $3.7 billion in supplemental emergency funds. The White House seeks to split the money between the Department of Health and Human Services (which is responsible for care and housing of the migrants) and the Justice and Homeland Security departments (which handle deportation and border enforcement).

Among the administration's other recommendations: divert $94 million in funds from existing refugee programs to meet surging needs at the border.

The president's plan has Branson fearing for the future of Refugee and Immigration Services' programs, especially those that run on so-called discretionary funding. Last week, she and other Tennessee refugee service providers went to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and advocate for programs they believe are crucial to the success of refugee families.

If the funding is diverted, Branson says, necessary services will face cuts. Medical case management may be among the first to go. So may support programs for women, children and the elderly. The grim irony is that if money is diverted from agencies like Catholic Charities to handle the looming humanitarian crisis on the border, it could deplete the very services that help recently resettled refugees find jobs and become self-sufficient — thus placing even more strain on local, state and federal resources.

Most of Branson's clients, recently arrived in Nashville from other continents, are not aware of the political storm brewing over border enforcement and reallocation of funds. But many can speak in detail about what will happen if existing programs go away.

Abdishakur Mohamed, who coordinates the employment-assistance program, knows how intimidating the American job market can be, even for the most motivated job seeker. In 2002, he was living in Mogadishu, the now-notorious capital city of war-ravaged Somalia. When he felt his life was in immediate danger from the escalating violence, he escaped to Cairo, contacted the U.N. Refugee Agency and received legal permission to emigrate to the U.S. in 2004. But that was just the beginning of the long journey that led him to where he is today.

"I applied for so many jobs here in Nashville," he recalls with a laugh. "Like, every job." The privately educated son of successful businesspeople from the Somali city of Baidoa, Mohamed was proficient in English and had worked as a teacher before leaving his country. But he found himself at the bottom of the proverbial ladder in the U.S., relying on Catholic Charities to guide him through an intimidating maze of employment applications and interviews.

"Most resettled refugees will sign up for the very first thing they can find; any job that will allow them to support a family," he explains. But childhood polio had made it impossible for Mohamed to take just any job. His physical limitations ruled out manual labor, and he searched for a year before finally securing employment.

In the end, he found himself a colleague of the very people who had helped him with the exhaustive search. In 2005 when Catholic Charities decided to hire someone to help refugees crack the Middle Tennessee job scene, Mohamed was the agency's first choice. His exhausting and sometimes demoralizing year as a job seeker had made him an accidental employment expert.

Now, with almost a decade at the organization, Mohamed credits his own perseverance and that of the staff who assisted him. "My employment specialist never gave up on me," Mohamed says. "And I never gave up either."

Mohamed now coordinates the program that helped him acclimate to the American workplace. Most new refugees make a visit to his office on South Sixth Street as soon as they arrive in Nashville. After assessing a client's education, employment history and skill level, Mohamed assigns him or her to one of the organization's six full-time employment specialists. These staff members work intensively with clients, walking them through every aspect of the job search process.

"Our staff are very dedicated," Mohamed says. "They transport them to and from interviews and teach them how to ride the bus. They make nonstop calls for them. If a client has to be somewhere at 6 a.m., sometimes his employment specialist is awake at 4 a.m. If the client has to stay late in the evening, the specialist stays late. The two work closely together and really get to know each other."

With constant staff support and a deep desire for financial independence, Mohamed says most refugee clients are employed within a relatively short time.

"Employers love our clients," he explains. "They have work ethic; they show up on time. Refugees are very good workers. Some companies and workplaces have come to really rely on us."

Asked about the potential loss of the RIS employment program, Mohamed just shakes his head.

"Many of the new refugees here have no way to get jobs," he says. "We are their eyes. We give them constant training and backup. They've already suffered, and then if they came here and no one helped them, it would be very difficult for them to become self-sufficient."

Deq Omer Mohammed, Mustafa and Abdullah, sitting in a semi-circle across from Abdishakur Mohamed's desk, are quick to agree.

"I'll put it this way," Mustafa says. "If you have a newborn baby and you leave it by itself, it can't survive. If its mother doesn't feed it, it can't survive. When we got here, we knew nothing. We would not have been able to come here without these services."

Even with English proficiency and a three-year stint as an interpreter for the U.S. military, Mustafa says he would have been lost on his own. As soon as he and his pregnant wife arrived in Nashville, his Catholic Charities caseworker helped them apply for TennCare to provide health coverage for prenatal care and the complicated delivery of their son, born this month.

"If we had been back in Iraq, either my wife or the baby would be gone," he says. "Here, the hospital cared for them, and my caseworker tried very hard to get assistance for us. When it didn't work right away, she tried harder."

Even amid the stress of moving, new fatherhood and the nonstop search for work, Mustafa has a sense of humor about being a new refugee in Nashville. "I went fishing, and I didn't know you needed a fishing license," he recalls. "I got slapped with a $200 fine. And I'm like, 'I'm sorry; I'm new; I'm trying to figure this all out.' "

A tailor in Iraq, Mustafa says he would like to work in an office, develop his skills and eventually rise to a management position. But for now, he says he'd happily take "any work" that will put him on the path to self-sufficiency. He is confident he will find that work, but when contemplating life in America without refugee employment services, he shakes his head.

"Without this program, it would be a nightmare," he says. "If it wasn't here, we wouldn't make it."

The other men, speaking through Abdishakur Mohamed as a translator, nod in agreement. Deq Omer Mohammed, older and initially more reserved, is a veteran refugee. He fled Somalia for an Ethiopian refugee camp 20 years ago and lived there with his family until relocating to Nashville in May. All of his children were born in the camp.

Mohammed says he did "anything he could to survive" there, picking up odd jobs whenever possible. Even with this long history of extreme adversity, Mohammed underestimated how difficult the transition into American society would be.

"We were welcomed well. They helped us resettle," he explains. "But it's so different here. In Africa, you see someone, and you usually know them. Here, you know no one, and everyone requires an ID card. I don't speak any English yet, so I can't imagine how it would have been without any help."

Now Mohammed is confident he will find work and eventually find his place in Tennessee. His children — the youngest 8 years old — will start school here in the fall.

"When I came, I didn't know anyone else, not one single person," explains Abdullah, with no hint of self-pity. The soft-spoken 21-year-old looks down every time he smiles: his jaw is semi-collapsed from a beating in Somalia that almost killed him.

"Now I have help with health care, help with surgery, help with rent," he says. "I still have pain from the injury. But I'm getting treatment, and now I know a few people."

Branson says many refugee clients come to the U.S. with significant health concerns from lack of preventative care — or, like Abdullah, from violent trauma.

"We have a client who came to us recently who had a bullet lodged in his eye, and there were medical assistance dollars available to him for a limited time," she explains.

"Our medical care coordinator was able to help him access treatment and negotiate rates so he could have surgery and facial reconstruction done, and soon after, he was able to get a job and go to work and be without pain for the first time in years."

That's not the only way the agency's programs try to ease refugees toward self-sufficiency. Becky Roy runs the Women's Alliance Group program, which centers around a sewing group in which women work together to create upcycled bags and clothing. Catholic Charities markets the items under the name Refuge Handicrafts, then returns all profits back to the women who created them. Some of the women now create accessories for local couture designer Manuel, and others have been hired as professional seamstresses. Roy works with approximately 20 women per year, all of whom are eligible for refugee assistance for a set five-year period after arriving in the U.S.

click to enlarge IMAGES COURTESY OF REFUGEHANDICRAFTS.COM/BLOG
  • Images courtesy of Refugehandicrafts.com/blog

"Of course it depends on the woman, her culture and where she's from," Roy explains, "but the vast majority of the ladies have no formal education and have never worked outside the home." She introduces her clients to daily life in the United States, teaching them English and helping them adjust to a foreign culture.

"Many of these women have really been beaten down in the past, and this takes a lot of bravery on their part," she explains. "I tell them I'm coming to pick them up for sewing, and they go, even though they've never met me. But then they learn that we love them, and that they have friends, and they gain life skills and confidence."

Roy also takes the women on field trips to grocery stores, farmers markets and other places where they can practice interacting with the outside world. These trips brighten weeks spent in relative isolation; for some women, they serve as the first steps to future career development.

Roy knows only a handful of phrases in Burmese, Somali, Congolese, Arabic and the many other languages that fill her van when she picks her clients up for sewing class. But she says that doesn't matter.

"Love is pretty universal, and the eyes and heart communicate that," Roy says. "Of course they're not going to be able to tell me in detail all about what they did last night, but that's okay. And after weeks or months of sitting next to someone in a car, she turns to you and says something in English, you get so happy. There's nothing like it."

Like Abdishakur Mohamed, Roy is constantly impressed by the steely endurance shown by her refugee clients. One woman had been here with her family for only a month before they were in a car accident near Nolensville Road. Her husband died, and she lost the child she was carrying.

"Now she will have to support herself and her 3-year-old daughter, so she comes to ESL class at least three times a week," Roy says. "She just continues to strive. This is who I want the public to know about. People only hear what the media says about immigrants and refugees, which is always politicized. But this is not a soundbite. It's a life."

Branson, Mohamed, Roy, their colleagues and clients must now wait for Congress to decide the fate of their and other refugee assistance programs, a process that may take months. They know that the final outcome is out of their hands, but hope that legislators will recognize the programs' value and spare them.

"One legislator asked me, 'What's a program that isn't really functioning that you'd be willing to eliminate?' " Branson recalls. As she remembers, she paused in disbelief, then said, "Well, there isn't one."

Abdullah, looking for work while recovering from reconstructive surgery, won't get the opportunity to tell Congress in person about the program that assists him. But it's not hard for him to sum up what life would be like without it.

"I could not survive," he says. "I would be living ... outside."

Whatever happens, Mustafa is hopeful that he and his co-refugees will soon prove themselves as Nashvillians.

"Yes, there is a gap between us and the rest of the people here," he says. "But the gap is getting smaller. We're trying to communicate. We're looking for peace, because we all come from places of war. We want to be part of the community."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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