Author: Vanessa Brown, LSS/NCA Board Member
Recognizing refugee’s contributions to our economy is an important part of reframing the dehumanizing narrative that refugees are a financial drain on more productive members of U.S. society.
Many hold misconceptions on how much assistance the U.S. government provides to refugees relative to what they give back; unaware that families who fled with little more than the clothes on their back are required to pay for international flights. Those who lack the thousands of dollars per person have travel funded via a loan they must repay to the USG. Upon arrival in the United States, refugees are granted work authorization, which is only the first step in a complex journey in a new culture. The substantial gap between the modest USG financial assistance refugees receive on a very short term basis and to the aid that is required to reach self-sufficiency, is filled by nonprofit organizations relying heavily on volunteers and faith communities that serve those in need regardless of religion, race or creed.
One such example is Lutheran Social Services – National Capital Area (LSS/NCA), which has resettled refugees throughout the DC metro area, dating back to World War II. Achieving economic independence is a key goal for each client we serve. Upon arrival, LSS/NCA matches each adult with an employment mentor who assesses their skills and interests then identifies appropriate jobs. Refugees also benefit from ongoing mentoring and vocational training designed to orient them to U.S. work place culture. Pre-employment workshops address topics tailored to local context, including methods to conduct job searches, complete applications, interview techniques, and soft skills such as interpersonal communications. Through active outreach to prospective employers, LSS/NCA has helped thousands of refugees build careers in a variety of professions. And refugees in turn are creating a path to economic independence for other new arrivals.
Nizama Tikvina arrived in the U.S. as a refugee over two decades ago. Since 1999, she has tirelessly helped new arrivals take first steps to self-reliance via her role as an LSS/NCA Employment Program Manager. She conducts outreach to local employers, emphasizing that while new arrivals may still be adapting they are also hard working and receive ongoing mentoring. Recently, DC/NOVA has seen an influx of highly educated refugees, in part due to the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) available for translators for the U.S. military, through which the U.S. has accepted upwards of 69,000 Iraqis and Afghans. A significant proportion of refugees resettled here are highly skilled, often with graduate degrees.
Unlike other resettlement countries with expansive social welfare benefits, the USG provides refugees with full financial assistance for only 90 days, which creates great urgency for new arrivals to find gainful employment. The net result is a sizeable contribution to the economic strength of our communities. Daniel Mekibib, himself a refugee from Ethiopia, is now the Director of the City of Alexandria’s Workforce Development Center. One of their employment programs serves around 450 local residents of which 75 percent are refugees. Mekibib also created the “Annual Workforce Conference for Skilled Immigrants,” an annual forum held at NOVA community college, convenes area employers to meet with skilled immigrants. Attendees learn about U.S. certification and licensing procedures; meet internationally trained professionals to learn how they have thrived; and network with employers and service providers in IT, health, transportation, education, government, and nonprofit sectors. These are just two examples of refugees leading efforts to match new arrivals’ skills and talent with our local economy’s labor needs.
Unfortunately, in fiscal year 2018 there has been a dramatic drop in the number of U.S. resettlements. Just over 10,000 refugees have arrived thus far and resettlement agencies are on track to resettle only 20,000 total, the lowest number since the U.S. Refugee program first opened in the 1970s. Successful resettlement in the U.S. does not rely on tax dollars alone – far from it. It is made possible through the massive network of U.S. charitable organizations, volunteers, financial and in-kind donations, and socially conscious employers. Again and again throughout the history of our country, immigrants have demonstrated success in achieving self-reliance, starting businesses, and creating new opportunities for those around them. Our communities are greatly enriched by refugees’ culture, determination, and substantial economic contributions.