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A New Home in a Country Shuttered by a Pandemic

“When I arrived at the airport, I felt that hardness just ripped off. But that stayed for only two weeks. Then the coronavirus came."

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

As Charles and his family left a Tanzanian refugee camp in late January, bound for a new life in Pittsburgh, he allowed himself to feel hopeful. “When I arrived at the airport, I felt that hardness just ripped off,” he said, speaking in French. “But that stayed for only two weeks. Then the coronavirus came.” 

Charles, who asked that I not use his full name to protect his family’s privacy, was born in the town of Baraka, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but spent most of his adult life in the camp in Tanzania after the 1996 war drove him out. There, he met his wife and had four children, now aged 5, 8, 16, and 18—all born refugees. 

He didn’t know anyone when he arrived in Pittsburgh with his wife, kids, and mother, but was starting to figure out his new home. He was taking English classes, and had met some other Congolese immigrants at church. But the classes were canceled because of the pandemic, and church services are suspended for now. He wasn’t able to find a job immediately, and now doubts when he’ll be able to do so in a slowing economy and rapidly contracting job market.

Across the United States, as vulnerable populations and marginalized communities face particularly blunt impacts of the pandemic, new refugees are facing the cascading effects of already fragile socioeconomic footing, the global economic meltdown, and a government response that threatens to leave them behind just as they were supposed to be getting started. They have moved from hardship to a new kind of hardship, now divorced from the communities, families, and homes they once knew. It’s become its own kind of shock. “When I moved here I thought I would have a reprieve,” Charles said.   

The total number of refugees who can be resettled during any given fiscal year is set by the president, and the Trump administration has placed that cap at 18,000 for fiscal year 2020, the lowest in the program’s history. Still, refugees have kept arriving. “I think we have close to 40 new arrivals in different households,” said Leslie Aizenman, the director of refugee and immigrant services at the Jewish Family and Community Service (JFCS) of Pittsburgh. “Some are SIVs, some are refugees.” (The Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program is meant to resettle Afghans and Iraqis who assisted U.S. government or military operations in those countries.)

There’s a patchwork of programs and agencies that collectively handle the process of settling and supporting new refugees, but much of the initial heavy lifting—housing, job assistance, and other essential services—falls on the nine large private resettlement agencies known as the voluntary agencies, or VOLAGS, and local partners like JFCS. Upon arrival, refugees receive a one-time cash grant that varies by where they’re being resettled, but usually hovers around $1,000 per person, according to the refugee assistance organizations that spoke with The New Republic. This typically goes straight into securing housing and up-front costs like appliances and utilities. Many are immediately eligible for Medicaid and cash-assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); those who don’t qualify can enroll in specialized programs know as Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA), which provide eight months of benefits similar to TANF and Medicaid. There are also a variety of programs and grants to promote things like English-language skills, technical training, and financial literacy.

The point is to tide people over until they can stabilize and support themselves, a goal that is achieved fairly consistently during normal times. The problem is, these are not normal times. “It was going really well. We just wrote a report, on March 31, all about the people who got jobs,” said Aizenman. “And then the last sentence was, ‘they were laid off due to Covid-19.’” 

She said she divides her concerns now into two distinct buckets: those who have arrived in just the last few months and may now have trouble getting on their feet, and those who arrived a few months before the pandemic hit, who had gained their footing just to get their legs kicked out from under them.

Of that first group, Aizenman said, “Right now their rent may be covered by refugee programs, but that clock is ticking. They’re going to have a roof over their head and their urgent needs are going to be met, but they’re not getting that normal beginning to launch them.” But those are just the basics, she added: “When this all ends, it’s going to take some time to get them job ready. They need a social [security number], they need a state I.D. They can’t get bank accounts.” It also doesn’t help that refugees whose travel is coordinated by the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM)—which is the majority—are required to pay the organization back.

The issues aren’t just with work, though. A lot of what the VOLAGs and their affiliates do is to simply get refugees used to the U.S., practically and culturally. This is much more difficult in a country that is mostly shut down due to a pandemic. “Where are [local] food pantries? How do you walk there?” said Alicia Wrenn, senior director of resettlement and integration at HIAS, which was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and is one of the nine large VOLAGs in the U.S. “Somebody would normally explain how to use the bus. They would actually take them to the metro and ride with them.” In this way, much of the early resettlement process relies on interaction and shared community spaces. As stay-home orders and social distancing guidelines force more and more of us apart, all of that is now much harder, at a time when recent arrivals need that support more than ever.

In some cases, this has caused friction between refugees and local resettlement groups, whose hands are somewhat tied by the crisis. Mumtaz Sharzad worked with U.S. military and civilian contractors in Afghanistan for five years before receiving an SIV in early March. Typically, travel is arranged by the IOM, but Mumtaz feared that the U.S. would set up border closures as the virus spread and decided to buy tickets for himself and his pregnant wife. “I was living with my family, my father, my brothers, my sisters, my wife. So I spent all the money I got each month from my job on my family,” he said. “When I bought the tickets, I borrowed some money from relatives.”

Now in Maryland, he is vexed by the various systems governing his new life. “We have Medicaid, but we don’t know how to use it, how it works, how it benefits us, because no one is telling us,” he said. The day before we spoke, he said he had horrible chest pains and called his case manager, but she told him they weren’t allowed to come into clients’ homes during the pandemic. After a couple Google searches, he discovered 911; paramedics told him that he was experiencing extreme stress. 

Mumtaz’s initial cash assistance helped pay for a deposit and a month’s rent for an apartment, but his rent is a substantial $1,200 every month. “I think there’s rules that whenever you do not pay the rent at the end of month, the owner of the apartment will come and they will kick you out from the apartment,” he said, “so because of that I worry, and I will accept any kind of job.”

Dana Lea, the director of community outreach for Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area (LSSNCA), which is the nonprofit assisting Mumtaz, said that the agency had been scrambling to adjust to the new reality, pointing to a blog post describing how a series of check-ins with other clients had surfaced similar concerns to Mumtaz’s. There can be technical impediments to the assistance; Mumtaz, for example, shares only one semi-functioning smartphone with his wife. 

Charles and his family, who are clients of JCFS, are also still not properly settled and shares many of the same concerns. He estimated that his family’s rent would be covered through July, but after that he will have to make his own way with no U.S. job experience, no credit, no savings, and whatever English he manages to learn in the interim, in a job market that is predicted to hit the highest levels of unemployment ever recorded.

Then there are refugees who are a few months ahead of Charles and Mumtaz in terms of settling in—maybe they had found a job, maybe even established some early footing in their new communities. “Most of those people are laid off,” said Aizenman. “It’s on them to pay all their rent at this point.” Her organization is working to help them apply for unemployment benefits, but the going is slow. The process is complex on its own as millions of people, newly out of work, navigate the overburdened systems, and many refugees are facing the added hurdle of limited language skills. 

This group—settled, but tenuously—is of particular concern to Ellen Smith, the program director of Keeping our Promise Rochester (KOPR), an organization dedicated to resettling SIV recipients in the Rochester, New York, area. “I’ve got, I don’t know, 18 families where the head of household lost his job. The first thing I did was I said, ‘Okay, you have to apply for unemployment.’ Well, they try to apply for unemployment and the system is just clogged,” she said. “I did have some landlords call and ask if I knew how rent was going to get paid, based on these folks losing their jobs.”

This is the sort of situation that Nasser, a friend of Mumtaz’s who asked to be identified by pseudonym to protect his family in Afghanistan, finds himself in. He worked with the U.S. military from 2015 until he left Afghanistan in 2019, arriving as an SIV in Virginia in November, along with his also pregnant wife. Like Mumtaz, he is a client of LSSNCA. He started driving for the ride-hailing app Lyft, but work is way down since the pandemic began. “Currently, I’m facing a very difficult problem, which is paying my bills, my rent,” he said. “The coronavirus, it has affected very badly all of us SIV, because most of us were doing jobs like Lyft and Uber and these kind of delivery stuff. You’re living paycheck to paycheck, and now there is no paycheck.” 

He says he contacted Lyft about getting relief, but said he was told the company was establishing funds only for those drivers who had contracted the virus. While such gig workers can now apply for unemployment benefits as a result of the recently enacted federal CARES Act, volume problems and technical issues have prevented most from accessing them. Many workers, especially new refugees without much experience navigating state and federal bureaucracies, are simply unaware that this is even an option. Nasser himself didn’t appear to know about it when he spoke with me, but has since received assistance from LSSNCA on enrolling.

As millions of American workers prepare to receive $1,200 apiece in CARES Act cash assistance, a number of populations will be left out. Among them are the country’s entire undocumented population, and potentially many recent refugees. While SIV recipients and refugees receive social security numbers, arrivals after about July of 2019 haven’t resided in the country long enough to fulfill the substantial presence test, a requirement for tax residency and to receive the cash assistance.

None of the experts I spoke with were clear on whether or not the federal government will protect recently settled refugees in the stimulus. The VOLAGs, which have policy shops that work together to push pro-refugee policies in Washington, D.C., are now trying to get that explicitly clarified in subsequent pandemic-related relief legislation, among other asks.

“You have to remember that they wrote that bill so quickly that there wasn’t much time for a lot of conversation. And so now we’re having to go back and make some fixes,” said Liz Mandelman, HIAS’ senior director of advocacy and policy. Other asks include increasing the eligibility period for the cash and medical assistance from eight to eighteen months; an expansion of the Preferred Communities programs that target refugees with particular vulnerabilities, like those with serious medical conditions; and an additional $2,000 per enrollee in the Matching Grant program which is a public-private initiative managed by the VOLAGs and focused on helping refugees find employment.

Additionally, the refugee agencies are hoping to make sure refugees keep coming. Except in specific emergency cases, all resettlements are currently paused—at least through the end of April, according to Mandelman—putting refugees at risk of having their documents expire before they can travel. The VOLAGs want extensions of validity periods for things like background checks and visas, as well as assurances that the administration will allow resettlements to continue normally once the World Health Organization determines that the pandemic has abated.

There’s also the open question of what will happen to the $350 million allocated to the State Department-managed Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) fund, which can be used for both international and domestic expenditures. The money was put in with no specific earmarks, and advocates are hoping that some of it can be sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for increased cash assistance for refugees and to shore up the refugee agencies’ operations.

In a statement, ORR said it was “closely monitoring and responding to the needs and impacts the Covid-19 disease is having on its public-private partnership network… The situation remains extremely fluid and can change rapidly. ORR continues to monitor information and guidelines on COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and will continue to keep our partners updated as needed.”

“Our messaging around that is that, you know, leaving some communities out of the CARES Act, and the expanded benefits actually, leaves all communities at greater risk,” said Mandelman. There are some promising signs that aid will come; she pointed out that the version of the CARES Act that came out of the Republican-controlled Senate had more money for the MRA than the $300 million included in the Democratic-controlled House’s version.

The overall uncertainty of the situation mirrors the larger debate over who exactly the first coronavirus economic response steps were for. After the smoke had cleared on the rush vote, closer inspection has revealed hundreds of billions of dollars in no-strings-attached corporate bailouts. The provisions designed to protect U.S. workers don’t go nearly far enough. Swaths of the population are disproportionately affected: Black Americans are dying at disproportionately high rates, young workers already facing an insurmountable level of debt are facing protracted unemployment and default, undocumented farmworkers have been deemed essential with no guarantee that they won’t be targeted by immigration enforcement as soon as the pandemic subsides. Yet their needs are either not being specifically addressed, or, as could be the case with recent refugees, ignored almost completely. Unless the government changes things in round two, it is conceding that the virus is not and will not be a “great equalizer,” but rather a mirror and accelerant to this country’s inequality.

In the meantime, the refugee agencies and nonprofits are working on immediate fixes. HIAS’ Wrenn said that the agency is doing “a pretty intense effort to do some fundraising, specifically for emergency needs for new arrivals,” that would cover necessities like food and shelter. “It’s kind of back to the basics,” she said. 

JFCS’ Aizenman said the agency had been doing what it could in keeping its clients fed and in their homes. “We know when their food stamps run out. If they can’t get to the supermarket, we’ll shop for them… there’ll be some emergency support that will go to landlords, primarily. No matter what their needs are, it frees up money. And I think we’ll be dealing with landlords a lot on what people can pay or not.” In Rochester, Smith has been receiving assistance from faith-based local groups.

Ultimately, if there aren’t further government interventions, the money will run out. Even for those who still have cash-assistance grants, they’re often not enough to pay rent, and a new cycle of expenses loom with the start of the month.  “America is a good country, a very good country, and I was happy coming here,” said Charles. “But right now my feeling is America is, bitter, bitter, bitter.”