A Syrian family is meeting with an attorney when their confusion surfaces. They've seen headlines about deportations and a travel and refugee ban. They're here legally, but they're nonetheless convinced that government officials will soon knock on their door.
"The father says, 'If they are going to take us, I wish they would just kill us. We can't go back. If they send us back, we're dead,'" says Madison Hayes, director of Refugee Community Partnership, a grassroots advocacy organization founded in Carrboro in 2011 that, among other things, helps facilitate legal assistance for refugees. "And the lawyer is telling them, 'No. This doesn't apply to you. You're safe here. You're OK. That isn't going to happen.' And they respond with, 'It is happening.'"
Hayes says that, at the dawn of the Trump era, this sort of anxiety is commonplace among the three hundred-plus refugees RCP serves.
"I think generally speaking, folks are acutely aware of the growing sociopolitical hostility toward refugees," she says. "The way that it manifests in everyday life—and we've heard this from local service providers and other folks who are working alongside refugee families—is that people are afraid to apply for jobs, they're afraid to apply for food stamps, they're afraid to submit an application for public housing for fear that it's going to reveal their status and all of a sudden they'll be targeted violently."
These are people whose lives have been defined by hardship. Being a refugee living in the U.S. requires it.
"What grants them refugee status is that their lives are so in danger that, by staying in their country, it would mean guaranteed death," Hayes says. "I think what's really critical for us to understand as Americans is that refugees are displaced by their own countries. They're not choosing to abandon everything they know and they're familiar with in search of some better opportunity. Their lives are literally that threatened."
Khai Tow lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for more than fifteen years after her family fled an oppressive military state in Myanmar. She remembers not having enough food to eat. The rice, fish paste, and beans that were rationed among those seeking asylum wasn't nearly enough to go around.
"We don't have meat or anything," she recalls.
Buying additional food meant money—something those confined to the camps had no way of earning, as they were prohibited from seeking employment. "We don't have enough food. And you can't go out," Tow says. "If you go out, they put you in the jail."
"There's woefully insufficient water, food, and medical resources to go around. The conditions there are pretty destitute," Hayes adds. "There aren't formal schools or employment opportunities."
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says there are currently more than sixty-five million "forcibly displaced people" living in camps across the world, a number characterized by UNHCR officials as "unprecedented." More than half of them are minors.
Many leave their homes on foot and travel for days before reaching a safe zone. Khai's parents fled Myanmar with their daughter and at first left her with her grandmother before leaving her at a camp in Thailand. It would be years—refugees must wait a minimum of two—before she would have a chance to board a plane to her new home, during which she and those she was living alongside were put through a series of interviews, health and mental health evaluations, and subjected to extensive background checks. And then, one day—for Tow it was after a decade and a half—a plane landed and names were called.
"There is no advance notice. A plane touches down one day, someone steps out of the plane, they call names off a roster, and essentially whoever is within earshot and hears their name called gets to go," Hayes says.
Those, like Tow, bound for America meet with little support, save a few months' rent and a job. The job, housing, and financial aid are provided by one of nine resettlement agencies contracted by the federal government to ensure refugees make it to their new hometown somewhere in the U.S. Beyond those basic needs, those agencies are also supposed to provide support.
But Hayes suggests that the agencies entrusted with doing the government's bidding are ill equipped to provide the kind of assistance that's really needed.
"They're responsible for, essentially, covering a person's plane ticket over here, and they give them a cultural competence training, but it's like two hours long," Hayes says. "Because, you know, if you have no frame of reference for what a culture is like, two hours is sufficient. [They] are supposed to provide support for the refugees' first three months here, but they are understaffed and overworked, so a lot of times, they can't."
Of the nine agencies across the nation, several—namely, Catholic Charities in Tennessee and the Refugee Empowerment Center and Lutheran Family Services in Nebraska—have cut staff and are bracing for losses in the millions of dollars due to President Trump's restrictions on refugee entries, as they rely on federal dollars paid per refugee. And even if the other agencies have the staff and funds to do their part, after three months of cash assistance, the government's involvement in refugees' lives ends.
"The only employment opportunities that refugees can really access are low-wage jobs," Hayes says. "Around here, that's typically housekeeping work at UNC. So you're talking eight dollars an hour. It's not enough to meet even basic rent costs. Because the work is so low-paying, these folks will often work two to three jobs—eighty hours a week—and they don't have time to participate in an ESL class or spend time with their kids. So quickly, they get locked into this persistent cycle of poverty."
That's where RCP comes in. It gets no money from the federal government and receives the majority of its funding from private donors and foundations that support nonprofits, as well as small stipends from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County.
Andrea Eisen, RCP's cofounder, says the only way to provide these refugees all that they need is a grassroots movement to accomplish things like an increased minimum wage and investment in affordable housing. In other words, policy changes that would benefit refugees who can currently only find low-income jobs and high-rent housing.
Hayes agrees. Over time, she says, being on the receiving end of charity "really starts to corrode your sense of self-worth."
Many refugees require constant support—a far cry from the home, job, and three months of financial assistance they come into the United States with, Hayes says. They need time to learn English and money for childcare so they can work enough to provide for their children.
"Before when I came [to RCP], I had a really hard time," Tow says. "It's so stressful when you go to the hospital or take your children to school. You can't understand anything. I don't know what the teacher say or what the doctor say. It was so hard for me, so stressful. It was tough. I needed help."
They need to feel empowered and be given space to heal psychological wounds, like another Syrian family served by RCP whose members live in fear—not because of Trump's executive orders, but because they lack the social relationships that provide a break from reminders of what they left behind.
"Both the husband and the wife are really depressed, and I think the long-term psychological effects of isolation, that loneliness and fear, it has profound consequences," Hayes says. "They can't make rent. They're two-hundred dollars short every month. They are dying to go back to the refugee camp in Jordan because they say at least there, we can make ends meet. Here, just being out in public is scary. It's like you see people taking photos of each other on the street. They worry a photo might get snapped of one of them and it'll end up on the Internet and it'll get back to ISIS and they're going to fly soldiers over here to kill them."
So RCP takes on the real challenges associated with refugee resettlement locally. The organization's seventy volunteers are there to help, sure, but they also provide a shoulder to cry on, as well as a support system most American citizens get from coworkers, family members, and neighbors. And they implore others to get involved.
"People celebrate their culture and the births of their babies. People get to live their lives and be resilient. That exists now," Eisen says. "And there is a community among themselves, one we have helped create, that helps maintain that."
Given recent developments inside the White House, continuing that work—and protecting those communities—is more important now than it's ever been, Hayes says.
"I think we have to critically reflect on how we're actually helping and defending folks from the sociopolitical onslaught they're facing now. Some see refugee support efforts as apolitical, as neighbors loving neighbors, [and] while this is a nice sentiment, it isn't what actualizes freedom from oppression," Hayes says. "By seeing this as apolitical, we are opting out of responsibility. When you understand how structures of power operate in this country, it becomes clear that if we are to actually help, it means using the access we have to break into sources and resources of power."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Strangers in a Strange Land."