Road to Resettlement: They Are the 1%

How do refugees access America’s borders and what happens once they arrive? An aid worker answers behind-the-scenes questions in this three part series demystifying the process of refugee relocation in the USA.

A guest post by Sammy P., an American aid worker who has worked Stateside for the last two years with a nonprofit in refugee resettlement. 

Refugee resettlement is a term producing a combination of fear and confusion these days.

However, there is a carefully tailored process that has been in effect for sometime here in the USA. Intentionally developed to be selective, protocol is set in place enabling refugee clients to transition to life in the USA safely and efficiently. But many Americans find themselves trying to put the pieces together of how this process really works. Those of us currently working in the refugee resettlement field are faced with many questions such as:

What is an official “refugee?”

How are they chosen?

How do they get here?

Are they living off handouts?

Do they work?

Are they safe for us to be around?

Refugee applicants must first prove their lives are in danger for reasons having to do with:

· religious affiliation
· sexual orientation
· nationality
· political association
· race
· war
· social affiliation

After fleeing their home country to a neighboring land, they apply to be resettled to a permanent country.

Surprisingly, only 1% are selected to receive the resettlement services of moving to a third location.

Those selected begin a long process of interviews, background checks, and medical screenings. There are time frames associated with these screenings, so if one expires before the client is cleared, they must start again in order to maintain fresh records. A “quick” process can be as little as two years from the time the client applies until they receive travel arrangements.

We recently served an extended family who fled a country in western Africa, who lived many years in a refugee camp while awaiting their departure. Between the families, there were a dozen children born during their time in the resettlement camp; the culture of camp resettlement was all these boys and girls knew. After arriving here, the children refused to eat potatoes at school, unless they were served raw.

Once a client is approved, they receive the legal title of refugee. Contrary to popular belief, refugees do not decide which country will become their new home. This decision is made for them. However, if family members have already been resettled, an effort is made to assign them to the same city. Agencies work hard at reunification. Learning side by side with family is a simple joy that makes the transition process much more manageable.

In the US, there are nine resettlement agencies under the State Department. These agencies have affiliate organizations under them that they work with when distributing the cases to be resettled.

Once families are assigned and accepted by an agency, travel is booked and it’s “go time!”

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

The first order of business is to secure affordable housing. This can be complicated because many landlords require background checks on their tenants, something our clients are unable to offer. Homes are set up with supplies that are either donated or purchased with welcome funds allotted to each client. A strict list is provided ensuring the family home is ready upon arrival with specific items. Volunteers from the community play a primary role in accomplishing tasks such as these.

While leaving a client alone in his new home, it was evident he was terrified. After asking us about dangerous animals he may encounter in his new neighborhood, we were able to deliver the news that a roommate would be joining him two days later. What we didn’t know, was that it was his best friend. Oh the relief, the excitement!

After meeting the family at the airport and taking them to their fully furnished home, things get crazy. The hectic schedule starts immediately with meetings and services on a strict schedule based on mandated deadlines. This timeframe does not allow families to even get over jet lag, and can be stressful for the clients, as well as the agency.

Services offered are:

· school registration for students
· English class enrolment for parents
· medical screenings
· job interviews
· cultural orientation
· transportation orientation
· lease signing and utilities
· social services: Medicaid, social security card, food stamps

Clients can receive agency assistance with the startup services up to ninety days after their initial arrival. They are also given some money to use for basic needs, until their first pay check arrives. But it is critical to emphasize careful spending from the very beginning, in order to stretch the funds as long as possible. Some agencies have a pool of additional funds that can be pulled from to assist with emergency situations clients may find themselves in.

Finding adequate employment is often a challenge. Clients are expected to earn their own income to pay for basic necessities and bills. One burden they face is the airfare they are required to pay back within a certain amount of time living in their new country.

As exciting as this process may be, it is not always the fairy tale often expected.

Building a new life from scratch requires you to be a fighterwilling to do whatever is necessary to succeed.

On one occasion, I noticed a client pushing a shopping cart full of groceries down the street for two miles…seven months pregnant. The cart was full of food for her five children.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/

Many leave their home countries with university degrees which provided a high standard of living, but securing work in their field is not a guarantee, and is often impossible. It is common to be assigned a low entry position in hopes of learning enough English to move up to a higher paying job, but this can take years. They end up relying on social services and donations, something they may not be accustomed to. Changing their careers late in life has created some emotional struggles that often result in depression.

While sorting through donated school uniforms, one family told me their daughter was not to be given anything previously worn by another child. As a frequent second hand shopper myself, I was confused. But it did give me insight into all the change that they are was dealing with. Trying to maintain a sense of normalcy and dignity is critical in helping these families to assimilate as quickly and smoothly as possible.

The mental health component of refugee resettlement is one of our largest challenges. P.T.S.D., culture shock, depression, suicidal behavior and personality disorders are all elements of resettlement, which are often left in the dark. Receiving quality services can be difficult due to a lack of resources, language barriers, and the cultural taboo associated with identifying and treating mental health problems.

Spreading awareness of refugee life in the United States is a key factor in growing the number of services offered to them. The more that our society learns, the better we can utilize the resources we have in serving this community with their unique needs.

Now you’ve seen the legal process of refugee resettlement, but what about when real life begins? 

Stay tuned for Part 2, Relocation: When The Rubber Meets The Road, in which I answer these questions and share stories of struggles faced by real refugees as they adjust to life in the USA.

Sammy P. works with a US nonprofit in the field of refugee relocation, with a focus on educational development for refugees & local school districts. Sammy’s first introduction to refugee work was during her years living in the Middle East, where she worked with refugees in both urban and rural settings.

She writes under a pen name for confidentiality reasons.