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U.S. Refugee Program 'On Life Support,' Facing Big Challenges

The Mulema family fled the Central African Republic, spent years in a refugee camp, and were eventually resettled in Newark, Del., by Jewish Family Services.
Tom Gjelten
The Mulema family fled the Central African Republic, spent years in a refugee camp, and were eventually resettled in Newark, Del., by Jewish Family Services.

Among the more daunting challenges President Biden faces in the coming year will be to make good on his goal of admitting 10 times as many refugees — 125,000 — as former President Donald Trump allowed to enter the United States last year. During his presidency, Trump ordered drastic cutbacks in the U.S. refugee program.

"It's going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged," Biden said in a speech last month at the State Department, "but that's precisely what we're going to do."

Among those who doubt Biden can meet his goal are the very agencies responsible for the mission.

"One hundred and twenty-five thousand refugees being resettled this [next] year is unrealistic," says Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the nine organizations tasked by the government to serve the needs of people fleeing war or persecution.

"Our refugee resettlement has been on life support for the past few years," Vignarajah says. Seventeen of her agency's 48 resettlement sites have closed due to budgetary cutbacks in the U.S. government's refugee program. Any rapid expansion of refugee admissions will therefore depend on a dramatic turnaround.

"It involves reopening offices that were closed, rehiring staff we lost, and regaining crucial institutional knowledge," Vignarajah says. The staff members who were let go, she says, represented decades of experience.

The work of resettling refugees is carried out on a family by family basis. Each case typically requires a dozen or more volunteers and social work professionals and takes several years.

A family escaping war

In Newark, Del., Pathy and Acastela Mulema were admitted to the U.S. in 2018 from a refugee camp in Ghana, where they had fled after a civil war broke out around them in the Central African Republic.

They arrived penniless with limited English language skills and burdened by the emotional and physical scars of what they had endured.

Their nightmare began in March 2013, when anti-government rebels seized control of the county's capital, Bangui. Pathy was home with the couple's two daughters, ages 5 and 6, when a rebel fighter came to the house. He related his story recently, sitting with his wife on a bench in their apartment courtyard.

"He cut me in my head, here and here," Mulema says, pointing to a long scar across his temple. "The blood come all [over] my face. I'm gone. I forgot everything." Unconscious, Mulema was unable to protect his daughters, who went missing. His wife Acastela that day was visiting her sister.

"The rebels come, start to shoot the gun," she recalls. "Boom. Boom. Boom. A big one." Acastela and her sister made their way to a local hospital, where they found Pathy, but not their daughters. With fighting raging across the city, looking for them was out of the question.

"No back home again," Pathy says. "From the hospital, we leave and run away." At that point, they had no idea whether their daughters were alive or dead.

With other refugees, the Mulemas made their way to Ghana. The refugee camp there was administered by the United Nations. They spent five years living in miserable conditions, with little or no shelter. Another daughter, Victoria, was born in the camp.

"Sometime no food, only water," Acastela recalls. "If you sleep, you need to be careful for the snakes."

"And insects," Pathy adds. "Scorpions."

Welcomed to the U.S.

U.N. representatives, hearing their story, approved the Mulemas for resettlement, and they were eventually approved for entry to the United States. The local sponsor designated to receive them was Jewish Family Services of Delaware, an affiliate of the HIAS organization (previously known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

"They come with maybe two suitcases," says Rosi Crosby, the lead Jewish Family Services staff member responsible for the Mulemas. "They get in a van, and that same night, we bring them to their apartment, which is fully stocked, fully furnished."

The work of resettling the family, however, had barely begun, given where the Mulemas were coming from.

"You can imagine them getting to the apartment," Crosby says. "There are so many questions. 'How do you flush the toilet? How do you use the dishwasher? How do you use the microwave? How do I lock my door? Who are my neighbors? What happens if there's an emergency?' "

In a sign of the interfaith character of refugee resettlement work, Jewish Family Services of Delaware partnered with a local Christian church, Calvary Baptist, to accommodate the Mulema family. Over the next three years, about a dozen volunteers from the church helped the Mulemas deal with the new challenges they faced.

"We had certain individuals responsible for carrying the family to their doctors' appointments," says Marcia Williamson, a Calvary Baptist member who coordinated the volunteer effort. "We had a team able to assist them reviewing documents that were coming into the home. We had other individuals who were available to get them to the grocery store and take care of some of those day to day responsibilities."

Jewish Family Services found an apartment for the Mulemas, saw to its furnishing and gave the family $3,600 as a one-time-only grant. Between that help and the assistance from Calvary Baptist volunteers, the Mulemas had virtually all their needs met.

"They give you a phone. They give us money. They give us clothes, food," Acastela says. "They show us everything. How to take the bus. If you need help, you call them."

Only after arriving in the United States did the Mulemas learn that their older daughters had indeed survived the war and were themselves in a refugee camp. They are now awaiting their turn to join their parents in the U.S. The slowdown in refugee admissions has delayed the process.

Faith mission on hold

Of the nine agencies tasked by the U.S. government with refugee resettlement work, six are faith-based. All are motivated by a scriptural imperative to welcome the stranger, and because the work relies so heavily on charity and volunteers, local congregations play vital roles.

Given how much work is necessary to resettle a single refugee family, however, the prospect of vastly and suddenly increased refugee admissions is barely feasible, in large part because the refugee resettlement infrastructure has been eroded over the past four years. Trump allowed fewer than 12,000 refugees to enter the country last year, the lowest number in the history of the U.S. refugee program.

Across the United States, about one out of three resettlement sites have closed. Jewish Family Services of Delaware was informed it would not be assigned any more refugee families.

"They continued to serve the people who had already arrived, but they were no longer able to serve new cases," says Mark Hetfield, the HIAS president. "That technically is referred to as being 'zero-ed out.'"

"The Trump Administration really did some serious damage to the infrastructure of the refugee program," Hetfield says. "Also, obviously, the pandemic put some really serious restrictions on."

A renewed government commitment to refugee admissions is not enough on its own to bring the program back to full strength. Landlords willing to rent below market or merchants willing to sell at a discount have to be recontacted, or new ones found. Faith communities that have been left on the sidelines in recent years will have to be re-energized.

The United States was founded as a nation of ideals, with almost a religious obligation to welcome the tired and homeless. The country has met the commitment before. It's now challenged to do so again, hard though it may be.

In Newark, Del., there is not much available capacity to accommodate new refugee families.

"For me, it is hard to imagine helping more than one family at a time, just with the size of our congregation," says Pastor Corey Fields of Calvary Baptist. His church, he says, has all it can handle serving the needs of the Mulema family.

"Our church would probably have trouble doing more right now," he says. "But I will say this: There are many other churches that need to do their part."

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Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.