Friday, December 4, 2009

First a refugee, now homeless

Soe Win, originally from Burma, is staying at Urban Ministry’s Weaver House until the winter emergency shelters open at local churches next month.
First a refugee, now homelessSaturday, November 28, 2009 (Updated 7:19 am)
By Lorraine Ahearn
Staff Writer


GREENSBORO — In a case that highlights thinning assistance for incoming refugees, a Burmese exile resettled through the United Nations has taken emergency shelter at Greensboro Urban Ministry.

Soe Win, 56, arrived in 2007 to be resettled by Lutheran Family Services. Now destitute and suffering from a breakdown, he arrived in mid-

November at the homeless day center on East Bessemer Avenue.

There, volunteer social workers contacted Lutheran Family Services, but no services were available. Win is now staying at Urban Ministry’s Weaver House until the winter emergency shelters open at local churches next month.

“It may be the first case like this,” State Refugee Coordinator Marlene Myers said this week, “but it won’t be the last.”

Myers was in Greensboro this week to meet with a network of local providers who are expected to help resettle 800 of the state’s anticipated 2,100 new refugee arrivals this year.

Guilford County has led the state in resettling political refugees because four local nonprofit agencies have contracts to do so: Lutheran Family Services, Church World Services, World Relief of High Point and N.C. African Services Coalition. Refugees are resettled within a 50-mile radius of the agencies.

Until now, Myers said, the resources have seemed to suffice — a “reception and placement” allowance of $850 per person, plus a $181 per month stipend in the initial months after arrival — with nearly every service directed at getting refugees jobs.

“In the past, it was very realistic. For the most part, it worked,” said Myers, who said few refugees had received cash assistance such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

“Lots of us have felt it would be great — on a federal level — to respond to the increased length of time it’s taking for them to find employment.”

Win, who speaks no English, spent 20 years in a Thai refugee camp after escaping from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. He left family behind to come to the U.S., working briefly in a plastics factory, he said through an interpreter, the Rev. Thang Lian Kaap of Myanmar Community Church.

Suffering severe depression and occasional hallucinations, according to social workers, Win stayed with Burmese friends who supported him for as long as they were able. After his friends moved, Win was left alone and was evicted from his apartment.

At the Interactive Resource Center on East Bessemer, where Win showed up earlier this month, social workers contacted Lutheran Family Services to ask for help. Win’s caseworker, Halat Mlo, said Friday that the agency has no Burmese interpreters and that no services were available beyond a client’s initial year.

UNCG social work graduate student Jennifer Clark said LFS gave her the same answer earlier this month when Win showed up at the day center where Clark interns and the staff tried to find help for him.

“I was in desperate need of an interpreter, and I was kind of shocked that this (LFS) was the agency that everybody was referring me to,” Clark said.

“It would be like calling the health department for medication and being told, 'We don’t do medication.’ ”

Myers, who oversees the N.C. Office of Refugee Resettlement, said follow-up services average 12 months . They revolve around finding work, and rental assistance is usually limited to one month per person .

In 2008, Guilford County resettled at least 35 percent of the state’s refugees, although Myers said that percentage might be low.

At Weaver House, assistant manager Randy Dale said he believed Win was the first refugee to become homeless here. Clark said she had spoken to two African men who also checked into the shelter this week, one from Ethiopia and another from an unidentified country in northern Africa. She was uncertain whether they had arrived as refugees.

Win said he was grateful to be sheltered and fed, but his main concern was that he had no job.

Both the pastor and the social workers said Win needs treatment for depression and other symptoms before he can work.

With so many North Carolinians out of work, Myers’ assistant, Pat Priest, observed that it might be human nature to question the importance of refugee resettlement.

In Angela Chavis’ view, however, refugees are what defines the United States. Recognizing the increasing need this winter and the lack of resources and coordination, she has organized a mutual assistance agency, HeavensGate World Services.

The group is set up to marshal the community to help with refugee needs.

“If we can’t put our arms out there to greet these people, what does it mean to be an American?” Chavis said.

“These people are not here by choice. They’re displaced because of civil war and trying to find a sustainable life,” she said. “They’re going to be an asset to us.”

Contact Lorraine Ahearn at 373-7334 or lahearn@news-record.com

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