by Reid Forgrave 01/27/2010
Two agencies that bring the bulk of international refugees to Iowa will cease resettling refugees this year, putting the brakes on a groundswell of Iowa humanitarianism that began when former Gov. Robert D. Ray first opened the state's doors to a group of 600 Southeast Asian refugees in 1975.
More limited finances are forcing the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services and the nonprofit Lutheran Services in Iowa to stop resettling people who flee from war-torn countries, natural disasters, political oppression or religious persecution.
Catholic Charities - the only other agency that resettles refugees in Iowa - is also having financial difficulties.
"I look (back) at this as a great, great period in Iowa's humanitarian history," said Kenneth Quinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia who worked with Ray early in the state's resettlement push. "Our state really was a moral leader in the world on behalf of the boat people and the starving Cambodians. If this is the marking of the downturn of it, well, I think all of us involved would feel very sad."
The Bureau of Refugee Services is the only federally funded, state-run refugee resettlement program in the country. It has an annual budget of about $2 million but lost some key federal funds this year that kept refugee resettlement operations afloat. The bureau plans to stop taking new refugees June 30.
Lutheran Services in Iowa plans to stop taking new refugees this month. Agency officials say it now costs more than they can afford - an estimated $3,000 or more - to resettle just one refugee and move that person toward self-sufficiency. Until this month, the federal refugee resettlement program funded less than $1,000 per refugee.
Last week, the State Department raised the federal stipend to $1,800 per refugee. Even so, Lutheran Services officials estimated that the agency would have a funding gap of $300,000 or more if it continued to resettle several hundred refugees annually.
Catholic Charities, part of the Diocese of Des Moines, will continue to resettle refugees, although that agency, too, is worried about finances. It has resettled 129 refugees in the past month.
"We are at same risk right now," said Sol Varisco, who is in charge of the resettlement program. "I thought we were going to be the first ones to close. But we are not so surprised, because we've been talking about how the economy has affected us and how the lack funding from the federal level has affected us."
Sarita Dahal, a refugee from Nepal, works Tuesday on her English at the Bureau of Refugee Services in Des Moines.In the past 35 years, some 30,000 refugees have resettled in Iowa.
People who work at the two agencies expressed deep sadness that the number of refugees who resettle in the state will drop. These agencies resettled 86 percent of the refugees who came to Iowa in the last fiscal year.
"Refugee families are some of the most vulnerable people in the world," said Jill Stuecker, in charge of refugee resettlement at Lutheran Services in Iowa. "To be able to do our little part, in Des Moines, Iowa, of all places, and to help provide a safe and peaceful place for families to live - just experiencing that has been life-changing."
On Tuesday morning, Kemal Delilovic sat in a conference room at the Bureau of Refugee Services office off University Avenue in Des Moines, near a group of recently arrived refugees working on their English.
Delilovic spoke about Lutheran Services, which brought him from war-torn Bosnia to Des Moines in 1994, and the Bureau of Refugee Services, where he's worked as a career development specialist for 13 years.
The 51-year-old man began to cry.
"My life wasn't in my control," Delilovic said of being a refugee. "You come here with one bag with all your belongings, and you start all over again. I'd experienced the worst of the war in Bosnia, the concentration camps, the mass rapes, the ethnic cleansing. I didn't want my children to experience the same. I wanted to come to a safe place, where I could control my own life, where there was hope for me.
"I don't think that I would have been able to do it if I was resettled somewhere else," Delilovic said. "I never felt as a foreigner here, even when I wasn't able to speak English. People were always welcoming and understanding. It's sad that another refugee won't be given the opportunity I was given."
Lucy Hnemi, 35, a Burmese refugee, arrived in Des Moines in July after a year in Malaysia, where she feared being sold into slavery or prostitution. She now works as an interpreter; her husband works at a meatpacking plant.
"Lutheran Services might not be able to give us everything we want, but they do absolutely everything they can," Hnemi said. "They make changes in our life, and they give us hope. Before this, we had no future at all, no hope."
Hope was what Ray was trying to instill when he committed Iowa to resettling refugees 35 years ago. The state's diversity exploded. Some schools began to experience their first real challenges relating to language barriers.
Over the years, the ethnicity of refugees who arrived in Iowa mirrored those of the world's hot spots. The first came from Southeast Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War. Others arrived in the 1990s from Bosnia and Croatia. More recently, the strife in some African countries has brought many refugees here, especially from Sudan.
Between October 2008 and September 2009, Iowa's three resettlement agencies welcomed 909 refugees to Iowa; most were Burmese, Bhutanese, Iraqi or Somali.
When local resettlement affiliates receive notice that a family of refugees will arrive, they begin finding housing and furnishings. They pick up the family at the airport. Over the next three months, staffers walk families through the myriad processes of establishing a new home country: applying for Social Security cards, searching for jobs, getting physicals to address medical concerns, learning English, learning the bus system, learning American laws.
Ray said he's optimistic Iowans will continue the state's tradition of helping refugees. The federal funding to resettle refugees must go to nonprofits, and nonprofits say the future of refugee resettlement in Iowa is on shaky ground.
"Hopefully, there will be a swelling of people who want to be helpful," Ray said.
To Help The Other Is To Help Themself! (Iowa Department of Human Service)