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Empowering Refugees in Worcester

Geri and her son, Jo, usually wake up around 4:30 in the morning, when she washes and prepares breakfast for him. Two hours later, Geri carries Jo to a friend’s house more than one-half mile away. During winter months in Massachusetts, temperatures at this hour can hover around zero degrees. Jo will stay at the friend’s house, waiting for a bus to bring him to daycare. Geri will not see her son off to school, however, because she has to walk back home, where a driver picks her up and brings her to work thirty minutes away.

Recently Geri sat in my office, a pile of mail stacked in her lap. I sorted through the letters, discovering that her food stamps (SNAP benefits) needed to be recertified. It takes about two weeks to recertify Geri’s SNAP benefits. During this time, we helped her sign up for WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a federal nutritional assistance program for mothers of infants and young children found to be at risk of food insecurity or malnutrition.

“When my food stamps were stopped [early last month], I had to use money to buy food for me and Jo,” Geri tells me.

While Geri completed a SNAP-Path-to-Work program in December, sponsored by Worcester’s local community college, Quinsigamond, and funded through the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), she has had trouble finding full-time employment in her area of training — home health aide.

Additionally, the hours of Geri’s part-time job have been reduced, as the holiday season when business was booming has passed. She struggles to pay her rent and phone bills, on top of the $45 she owes weekly for childcare and nearly $80 she must pay every week for transportation

In late January, Geri began worrying about her upcoming rent payment. She shares a room with other refugees, paying $300 per month. This is an affordable rate considering how housing prices across Worcester are skyrocketing. However, by the first of the month, Geri only has $28 in her account and anxiously awaits the arrival of her next paycheck.

Living paycheck to paycheck is the reality for many people trying to navigate rising housing costs and general living expenses. When you couple this stress with many refugees’ history of trauma and depression, on top of balancing English classes and working low-skill and often arduous jobs, most of our clients barely get by.

On the day of my writing this blog post, Geri’s son, Jo, has been sick with a high fever. The daycare will not accept him, out of fear of getting other children sick. So Geri has to decide whether to stay home with her sick child or be absent from work. She is afraid that missing another day of work will set her further behind in affording rent.

This type of compounded disadvantage, as social researchers have termed it, tends to disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable members of American society. Refugees tend to occupy lower economic classes, having been forced to leave behind their livelihoods and start anew in a foreign land with limited financial support.

Moreover, the stories people tell of America abroad can differ sharply with people’s everyday realities. “Many in the camp think the streets are paved with gold,” one Nepali interpreter told me about Bhutanese refugees’ perspective of America. The struggles of integration tend to break down these visions of America, however, and left in their wake are communities like Worcester, where residents and agencies alike are seeking to empower immigrants, refugees and asylees who have fallen through the cracks.

“I just want to work and support my two kids,” Germaine, a single mother who lost her husband during war in Central African Republic, recently told me. As Germaine and I spoke, I extolled the benefits of her kids growing up in Massachusetts, where renowned medical centers, robust welfare programs and excellent educational opportunities create pathways for low-income residents to achieve upward mobility. Two days before and at her employer’s request, Germaine worked a double shift beginning at 11 AM and finishing early the next morning.

Today, she and I celebrated the arrival of her first paycheck. Despite relying on federal support of $1100 upon arrival, refugees like Germaine are not expecting a hand out. At RIAC Worcester we operate three federal programs, “Resettlement and Placement” (R&P), Match Grant and “Preferred Communities” (P.C.), all of which aim to promote refugees’ self-sufficiency.

“I want to work and help to pay rent,” another client, Kara, recently told me. She has been receiving unemployment benefits after being laid off from her housekeeping job. She suffers from a chronic blood condition as well as blindness in her left eye, but still strives to support her family.

During my time at RIAC, I have come to know refugees who, despite their hardships, find within themselves resiliency – a fighting spirit that allowed them to leave behind homes owned by families for generations; flee violence and go to overcrowded and segregated camps resembling prisons more than temporary housing; and find refuge in distant cities like Worcester, where they must meet the daily challenge of learning a foreign language, culture and lifestyle. Like the ancestors of nearly all Americans, refugees press forward because it is the only way to realize the dream of a better life.


Written by Andrew White, Americorps Member.

The names in this story have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

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