US government says 'We'll protect you' to refugees, but what happens during shutdown?

The World
Young Somali women gather at the Somali Development Center in Boston for a healthcare seminar.

Refugees come to the US from around the world escaping war and persecution. They come trusting that the US government will protect and help them. But right now, that government has a closed sign on its door. And those who run agencies that help refugees don't know what this shutdown means for them or the refugees.

When new refugees arrive in the United States, they come to a place like the Somali Development Center in Jamaica Plain, a neighbourhood of Boston. The organization serves about 500 refugees and immigrants a year who are from the Horn of Africa.  

“We are doing a lot of work for a very vulnerable population that does not get a lot of help and support,” said Abdiraham Yusuf, the group’s executive director.  

“We help them get a job, help them get affordable housing, get the kids in the right schools, teach people English and acculturation issues.”

Yusuf gets money to do much of this from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which receives its funding from the federal government.  So I asked Yusuf if the federal government shutdown affects his office. And he says I’m not the only one inquiring.

“A lot of people are asking me: ‘What’s going to happen? Is this office going to close?’ And it creates uncertainty for people.”

Yusuf reassures his clients that he doesn’t expect much of an impact on operations, that is, if the shutdown only lasts a few days.

“But who knows? The whole idea and the tension… I don’t know,” he said.

I called the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, the agency that sends Yusuf his checks, to try and get some clarification. The chief of staff there suggested that I contact a federal administrator at the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, DC.

So I sent an e-mail and got an immediate response. It said: “I am out of the office on furlough and I am not able to read or respond to your message.”  

This situation has left a lot of refugee resettlement agencies across the nation feeling confused.

“I think the impacts are kind of rippling out a little bit and we’re learning a little bit more literally, it feels like, as each hour passes,” said Christina Bruce-Bennion, director of the Agency for New Americans in Boise, Idaho.  

Her organization works mostly with Iraqi, Congolese, and Somali refugees.  

Bruce-Bennion relies on a mix of funding sources and grants.  But one of her key grants has now been suspended because of the shutdown.

“I know there are several meetings going on in New York and DC today as they try and figure out what all the different pieces are that are being impacted,” she said.

“We did have actually an arrival come last night, so as we move through the usual things of applying for social security cards and other public benefits, I guess we’ll be seeing a little bit more [impacts]. We’re hearing anecdotally that, for example, social security applications, and food stamp benefits and Medicaid and things are being impacted around the country. We just haven’t seen it here yet.”

What she has seen is the impact of the so-called sequestration, automatic spending cuts to government-funded programs that took effect in January. Bruce-Bennion said some of her grants have been cut by as much as 20 percent.

In Boston, Abdiraham Yusuf has also seen his budget cut dramatically by the sequestration. He said it’s harder to pay the rent, the electric bill, and his small part-time staff. To Yusuf, the latest government shutdown reflects “a sad state of affairs” in Washington.  

“It is possible that next year we might not be here, it is very possible, after 17 years of trying to build an institution that helps newcomers acculturate into the larger American society,” said Yusuf.

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