BY DIANE SMITH firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted Thursday, Sep. 10, 2009
FORT WORTH — Keshab Adhikari, 23, has been fleeing persecution in Bhutan since he was 6.
Adhikari’s family was a target in its native South Asian homeland, where he said armed forces patrolled villages and arrested farmers who practiced Hinduism. Adhikari dreamed of a better life in the United States, hoping to work and prosper.
"The life will be beautiful if we are dutiful," Adhikari said.
Adhikari is learning America’s ways quickly since moving from a refugee camp in Nepal to Fort Worth about six months ago. He learned to drive, got a part-time job and worked on polishing his English. He also joined the ranks of Americans anxious for better days.
"Barack Obama, he has said the economic recovery will be good after 2009," Adhikari said, quoting news reports he hopes will help fellow refugees struggling to find work while resettling in a new homeland. "People are suffering."
The nation’s recession has hindered efforts to help refugees trying to start anew in the United States. The goal of people fleeing persecution in their homelands is not only to be free, but also to become self-sufficient through employment.
U.S. efforts to help refugees slowed after 9-11, when scrutiny of people entering and leaving the country stalled resettlement for many, refugee advocates said. Then, just as the resettlement process began moving again, the economy tumbled, making the American dream more difficult to attain.
Catholic Charities Diocese of Fort Worth is trying to help sister agencies by resettling refugees in Texas, where the recession hasn’t been as bad as in states such as Indiana, Michigan or California. Catholic Charities’ Fort Worth operation is helping resettle 650 refugees this year, up from 450 last year. More than 400 refugees had already been resettled as of late August.
"Those areas that were hard-hit began saying, 'We can’t take any more refugees,’ " said Tory Cheatham, director of immigration and refugee services with Catholic Charities in Fort Worth. "We do want to be there to meet the need."
'A very tough time’
Tucked in America’s Rust Belt sits Fort Wayne, Ind., which in recent years has become the new home for refugees — mostly Burmese — whom Catholic Charities helped resettle. Last year 837 refugees called Fort Wayne their new home, up from 632 in 2007.
But the recession has hit Indiana so hard that refugee advocates there said they can’t help as many people.
"It is very difficult to find employment for arriving refugees," said Nyein Chan, resettlement director for Catholic Charities’ refugee services in Fort Wayne. "We still want to resettle. We support family reunification."
Chan said the agency is helping 300 refugees resettle this year, primarily the spouses, parents, children and grandchildren of refugees who are already living there.
Fort Wayne depended on manufacturing and auto industry jobs lost to the recession, Chan said. The best opportunities for refugees are at a meatpacking company about 76 miles away.
Chan said some of the refugees who moved to Fort Wayne are searching for work outside Indiana, where the unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in July. These breadwinners go to other states — typically Alabama, West Virginia and Texas — to work and send the money back to their families in Fort Wayne. Texas’ unemployment for July was 7.9 percent.
"They still have to have employment to pay the bills and live in the United States," he said. "It is a very tough time."
Working with employers
Amanda Cowart networks with Tarrant County business owners and managers in a search for jobs refugees can fill.
"I think they all come with the American dream mentality: that they will have a home, that they will have a job and freedom," said Cowart, job developer for Catholic Charities’ refugee employment services in Fort Worth.
Cowart educates employers about refugees. To cut through the red tape, she meets with a CEO advisory committee that offers a heads-up about possible openings. She helps refugees find work within 180 days, the U.S. government’s deadline for self-sufficiency. She said refugees have been finding work by the deadline, but more slowly than in better times.
"It was getting difficult with the economy to get into businesses because so many people were applying for jobs that used to not be competitive," she said, citing jobs in housekeeping, dishwashing and assembly lines.
Cowart said that even though Texas is not suffering as much as other regions, she has to keep refugees encouraged during their job searches.
"All they want is a job to provide for their family just like they did in their country," she said. "Employment is where they find their dignity and self-respect."
Catholic Charities’ local services have been helping refugees resettle in Tarrant County for many years. Refugees are defined by the federal government as people who are fleeing persecution in their homeland because of religion, race and nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Here is how many refugees the program has resettled in recent years. (After 9-11, entry-exit concerns stalled the process for many refugees.)
2009: 650 (committed)
Source: Catholic Charities Diocese of Fort Worth
A call for donations
Catholic Charities Diocese of Fort Worth is looking for donations to help furnish homes for refugees. The agency has received furniture from a partnership with Fort Hood but needs beds, dressers, kitchen tables, chairs and nightstands to set up apartments. To find out more about donations, call Amy Board at 817-920-7733.