Those lazy refugee resettlement people!

People like Ann Corcoran would have you believe everyone who works in refugee resettlement is 1) lazy, and 2) being paid a big fat salary.

Neither of these is true.

Corcoran and other idiots love to mention the six figure salaries the presidents of (huge) organizations like the IRC and USCRI get, but those salaries (which I, personally, do think are too high, by the way) are ONLY found at the VERY TOP of these organizations. Let me repeat that: ONLY AT THE VERY TOP. In other words, literally a handful of individuals out of the many thousands involved in resettlement work. Everyone else is paid the same, often even less than a typical NGO employee. At some offices, as much as half of the staff will be composed of interns, fellows, and full-time volunteers.


Ann is right, our offices are too luxurious. But how could we resist splurging on that high-end bulletin board?

As for the lazy part, that’s probably the most insulting to anyone who has ever worked in resettlement. If you look, you can find a few lazy and incompetent people in any organization, but I have seen resettlement office employees work harder, longer, under more stressful conditions and with less benefits and support than employees in any regular NGO offices I’ve ever worked in.

Corcoran and other critics claim that resettlement offices do a poor job serving refugees. I will admit that is sometimes true. But it is most often because of deep and longstanding problems in social welfare in this country, not because of a lack of hard work or creativity or commitment by resettlement staff. When I worked full time in resettlement, it was my entire life. I arrived at work early in the morning, and left late at night. To work until midnight on a Friday and then get up and go to the office on Saturday morning was normal. My colleagues and I worked surgeon’s hours, sometimes as much as 80 hours a week during the high season of resettlement from May to August. We often spent money out of pocket to help clients when our budget didn’t cover something essential. For a while, I was covered in bruises from moving heavy furniture up and down narrow staircases in crappy apartments and re-organizing the field office warehouse.

The typical refugee resettlement employee is a hybrid social worker/mover/counselor/human rights monitor/teacher/nurse/lawyer/daycare worker/accountant. The work is difficult, fast-paced, grimy, often bizarre, and poorly paid.

But those who do it well also love it, and care deeply about helping their refugee clients begin healthy, happy new lives in the United States.

just some lazy resettlement staff moving furniture for clients.

This is not a photo of my colleague moving a box spring. It is an image of all of us eating bon bons.

To give Ann Corcoran and other resettlement critics an idea of what a typical day in the life of a resettlement office employee is like:

8:00am – get to the office early, go through assurance forms, fill in arrival dates and time in the calendar, make coffee.

8:30am – Drive to pick up client for a job interview.

9:00am – Accompany client to job interview.

9:30am – Drive client home. On the way, get a phone call from the office. New arrivals are arriving earlier than expected. You hurry back to the office.

10:00am – Run through office corridors calling on any and every available intern to help you prepare a house kit in the warehouse. A herd of interns follows you.

10:00am-10:30am – You frantically put together enough linens, beds, tables, chairs, and kitchenware for the incoming family of seven. Crush one of your hands moving the bed.  Something might be broken, but you down some over-the-counter painkillers, because you don’t have time for anything else.

10:40am -Drive to the store with interns. Together, you buy enough groceries and toiletries to last the new family a week, or two, depending on their rate of consumption.

11:40am – Drive to the new family’s apartment. Your colleagues and other interns are setting everything up. The director of the field office is on her knees in the bathroom, bandanna tied around her head, scrubbing a filthy toilet. You wish you could do better than a place like this for your clients, but your finances won’t allow it –hell, your own place isn’t that much better– so, you roll up your sleeves, grab a steel wool cloth and do the best you can with what you have.

12:30pm – Shit, you need to drive to the airport NOW. On the way, you realize you won’t have time for lunch. Again.

12:45pm – You meet the family at Arrivals. They’re confused, scared, shy. The grandmother can barely stand. You get them all in the car and text your ETA to your colleagues.

1:30pm – The family is settled in. The settling in part didn’t take long. They didn’t have many possessions in those multi-colored plastic IOM bags.  One of your colleagues is now serving the family their first hot meal on American soil. You notice that the grandmother really doesn’t look ok.

2:00pm – Back at the office. You schedule an appointment for the granmother at the local low cost clinic. The clinic receptionist says tomorrow is all booked. You’re worried, so you plead.  You get the appointment.

2:00pm-3:00pm – You meet with clients, hearing complaints about landlords, answering questions about social services and education and where to shop for this and how to ask for that and what is this strange rash I have all over my body?

3:15pm – You sneak off to the kitchen. Someone has eaten all the cookies you bought yesterday, before you had a chance to eat any. Suddenly, you are overcome with a desire to hunt down and kill he cookie-glutton. But, you’re also tired, so you settle for raiding another colleague’s yogurts.

3:30-5:30pm – More appointments with clients, more abusive landlords, more questions about schools and jobs and mysterious rashes.

5:30pm- Your last appointment of the day leaves. You breathe. But, then, you remember you have a report due.

7:00pm – You’ve finished the report. A colleague walks in. There’s a broken water pipe at a client’s house and the first floor is flooding. The landlord is furious, but he’s a slimy bastard and lied about fixing the damn plumbing a few weeks ago, before your client and her family moved in. You sigh, whack your face on your desk, and roll up your sleeves again.

7:15-8:30pm – Water wars. Frazzled clients. Asshole landlord. Everything is resolved…sort of. For today, at least.

8:30pm- You’re wet, sweaty, dirty, and you just threatened legal action for the bazillionth time this month, and, yet again, for good reason. You take out your now-soggy day planner and schedule housing rights seminars for your Burmese and Congolese clients. On your way home, you call your Karen and French interpreters. You catch a whiff of your hair. Ah, the heady aroma of mothballs, clorox, and baby vomit. You wonder where the baby vomit came from, but decide you’d rather not know.

9:00pm – You get home, flop in a chair, open a beer and your laptop and begin emailing volunteers for your essential documents translation projet.

10:00pm – You flop into bed, having decided not to bother showering. Today was a comparatively easy day.

4:00am – You wake up in a cold sweat from a horrible nightmare wherein your grant application was denied. It was just a dream, just a dream. Your heart rate slows.

Still, you love this work. You really, honestly do.

20 thoughts on “Those lazy refugee resettlement people!

  1. I don’t know what refugee resettlement office you work in. At our local refugee resettlement affiliate the workers never answer the phones, and instead leave voice mail on 24-7. When the refugees leave messages no one ever calls them back. The refugees don’t get basic items such as lamps, clothes, or real tables (they get card tables). When the refugees regularly have problems with their slumlords the resettlement agency people are never available to help.

  2. They probably never answer the phones because they don’t have a receptionist and are always in meetings. That said, they should have someone on phone duty all the time, if at all possible. At my office, the main number sends you to a menu, from which you can pick the extension you want. Most of the time, you do have to leave a voicemail, but you will be called back.

    I don’t know any office that doesn’t provide lamps. That’s standard. As for the card tables, well, we have to do that too. Can you make a wild guess as to why?

    Because that’s what we can afford. We’re given a few hundred dollars for the whole move-in, so we need to stretch that as far as possible. If someone donates a regular table, we give our clients that. If not, they get a card table from Wal-Mart. I’m not proud of that, but it’s a problem of inadequate funding from Resettlement and Placement, not heartlessness.

    Landlords are very often a problem, and not always one that can be fixed, though we certainly try. As you know, refugees have to be placed in cheap housing, and that often entails dealing with slumlords with no qualms about exploiting and harassing their tenants. There is a local housing rights group my office works with to settle disputes between refugees and their landlords. If all else fails, we get pretty mean and call our lawyer friends in.

    But we honestly can’t take on every case. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and we can’t afford to hire someone to work full time just on housing and anti-discrimination issues right now. And even if we had a little bigger budget, that’s not what we’d spend the money on first. We’d spend it implementing a refugee health mediation program.

    Needless to say, I am working on grants.

  3. And what about clothes? Do you provide clothes for school, work and everyday use? That means socks, underwear, shoes, real winter coats, etc. Isn’t refugee resettlement supposed to be a public-private partnership? That means resettlement agencies are required to raise their own funds to add to the resettlement process, not merely complain about the $850 per refugee provided by the government just to get the refugees started in the first month. We aren’t even talking about refugee cash, food stamps, Medicaid, WIC, etc.

  4. Getting people signed up with social services isn’t as easy as clicking a mouse, Mark. Especially if you work in a Rust Belt city with high unemployment and abundant poverty anyway. Think of it as going to the DMV, only many times more tedious and unreasonably bureaucratic.

    Also, programs like Match Grant are not guaranteed to every refugee. Each resettlement office gets a certain number of Match Grant “slots” every year, and when those are all filled, you don’t get any more.

    Clothes: this is done on a case by case basis. Some refugees, especially Iraqis, come with enough clothes, and don’t need any more. Burmese, on the other hand, generally need at least some supplemental items, like shoes that aren’t sandals, and warmer things. In these cases, we got to the local clothing bank after our clients are set up in their apartment (we can’t do it before they arrive, because we don’t know their sizes) and pick out what we think they’ll need. This is not always easy, because the local clothing bank is always very busy, and we’re given fifteen minutes to get everything and leave (again, this is a poor town to begin with.) This past summer, I was lucky to find a set of twelve little girl’s sundresses, all completely new, at the clothing bank. They became a sort of uniform for our little refugee girls. We also have a clothing donation closet at the office, which volunteers and people in the community fill with clothes refugees can just take if they need.

    I’ll admit some of this could run more smoothly, but every penny we get for our clients, we spend on them.

    The $850 from R&P per person:

    This is tricky. If you have a single adult, that needs to cover rent (which is never less than $450, and usually closer to $550 for a place with few or no shootings outside –and that’s if you get the one month’s rent security deposit waived, otherwise, you’re screwed), all food for thirty days, utilities, clothes, and any incidental expenses. Sound like enough now?

    Sometimes, it is enough for the first month, as in cases of medium sized families of six or seven people. Rent for three bedroom apartment to house six people is only about $800 (though apartments at that price are dwindling in number), and that leaves you with a few thousand left to spend on everything else.

    Huge families are a major challenge. A family of ten or eleven will have more than two, usually three or four, adult or teenagers who will need their own rooms. Renting an entire seven or eight bedroom house is very expensive ($2000 to $4000 per month) and always requires a security deposit. Even if we can afford it for the first month, we know our clients will struggle to pay the rent along with food, utilities and everything else thereafter.

    See, now so simple is it?

  5. Oh, and fundraising requires hiring someone to raise funds, remember?

    Volunteers can only raise so much money, and there is limited federal grant money available to pay the salary of even a part time development officer.

    But, again, we’re working on it. It’s not as if anyone forgets the need.

  6. Again, $450 doesn’t have to be enough for a single refugee when the resettlement agencies are supposed to be adding their own money to the pot.

    You preface “if you have a single adult”, yet most refugees come as families. So the $850 per refugee you get from the government for the first month seems more than enough with the money you are supposed to add to it. Doesn’t seem too complicated.

    The clothes are contractually required items. You are to provide all clothes to each refugee for work, school and everyday use. It does not depend on what they brought with them – usually just the clothes on their backs. This is one on the few social service industries I’ve seen where contracts mean little and are not enforced.

    Match Grant may not be available for every refugee but for those it is available to that means that the resettlement agency still gets to keep half of the $850 but also receives matching money for the supposed worth of items donated to the refugees. This is mostly junk items that have initially been written off at inflated values on individuals’ tax statements.

    Shall we talk about the 20% of the refugee travel loans that the resettlement agencies are allowed to keep. Loans that are not collected are just written off by the government. Have you ever tried to help one of your refugee clients request a deferment (delay) in repayment of the loan due to unemployment, etc? The national resettlement agencies will not respond and tell the refugee if they have received a deferment or not. I have helped dozens of refugees request deferments and never once has a resettlement agency responded to allow a deferment, even when they actually granted the deferment. I guess the hope is if they remain silent the refugee will fear destruction of credit and try to pay – even if that means not eating or paying other bills.

  7. At the resettlement agency I work at, at least half of our arrivals ARE single adults. Then come couples and families of three, then families of five or six, than large families of seven to fourteen.

    Some resettlement agencies have more money than others. IRC, for example.

    At my agency, field offices are fairly autonomous, and struggle with staffing, nevermind fundraising. That said, it’s an ongoing effort, one I am heavily involved in.

    We do completely outfit refugees who don’t bring enough clothes, but there is no reason to give a well-off refugee who comes with a lot of nice clothing things they will not use and may be insulted to receive.

    Some refugees come with nothing (most Burmese, for example), and others (middle class Iraqis, for example) come with entire wardrobes of clothing, laptops, etc.

    Getting matching money for the donated items isn’t as easy as you make it sound. And the value of these items isn’t inflated. For us, it’s deflated. And most of the time, as far as I know, we don’t actually get any at all.

    I don’t know what the travel loan situation is like elsewhere, but the refugees that come through my office usually don’t pay their loans back for a long time, if at all, and we don’t bring it up with them. If they ask for a deferment, they are assisted with that.

    I highly doubt you’ve been helping refugees defer loans, by the way, as you seem to be a regular commenter on the Refugee Resettlement Watch blog.

  8. Doubt it if you wish, but first try to assist a refugee to write to one of the national agencies and request a deferment. You will never receive a letter back granting a deferment.

    You contracts do not allow you to withhold clothing to refugees you think have enough clothes. I’ve worked with hundreds of refugees and not one came with more than a few clothes. These contracts on weren’t the paper they are written on if resettlement agencies can choose to leave out the very minimal minimum required items.

    Why is it you believe that if fundraising isn’t easy that you have an excuse not to add enough funds of your own to match the public money? The whole set up of a nonprofit – not paying any taxes and allowing donations to be written off of donors taxes – is to allow for fairly easy financing compared to the for profit sector. You say you need yet another public grant to hire a fundraiser? Adding your own money to refugee resettlement is not supposed to be optional.

  9. We are not “withholding” clothes. Even in cases when refugees come with a lot of appropriate clothing, we ask. If they say they don’t want any, we go along with that.

    This saves us time we can then use to get clothes for refugees that do need them. It does not, however, save us money, because the clothes are donations anyway. (Try making R&P money stretch to include clothes as well.)

    I’m sure you’d like to imagine that refugee resettlement offices have unlimited funds or have access to unlimited funds outside of their federal contracts, but that’s not the case. So, the question again, is WHAT MONEY!?

    By the way, you made me laugh with that line: “The whole set up of a nonprofit – not paying any taxes and allowing donations to be written off of donors taxes – is to allow for fairly easy financing compared to the for profit sector.”

    You’ve obviously never worked in a non-profit.

  10. Then you should give up your non-profit status if you think it offers no financial advantages. You seem to have to resort to laughing and questioning the integrity of anyone who disagrees with you. I don’t think this puts your field in a good light. I’ve also noticed that whenever a refugee doesn’t know basic facts that the your fellow refugee workers say the refugee must have forgot was was told to them. Is there any possibility of self-criticism on your part?

    The “what money” is the money you are supposed to be raising and adding to the resettlement process. You don’t even seem to be aware of this requirement. The federal contribution is just that, a contribution. It was never meant to cover all needs. Up until the federal government got involved refugee resettlement was funded entirely by private funds. Now we have resettlement agencies complaining that this money is supposed to pay for all needs. This does not garner much sympathy from the public.

  11. Your contracts do not allow you to ask the refugee if they want the basic items – you just have to give them. Wouldn’t if be nice if contracts worked like that. I have seen so much broken furniture given to refugees. It doesn’t matter what was donated to your organization. Put the broken stuff in the garbage and go buy a decent table for $10 at the secondhand store. Anything that is broken and was written off by an individual on their taxes is by definition inflated.

  12. Where can I buy a decent table secondhand for $10? Certainly not at the local Salvation Army of Goodwill stores, and very rarely through Craigslist.

    We never give broken furniture to refugees. Ever. We have, however, given away our own office furniture on occasion.

    I am aware of the requirement to raise funds. It’s just very difficult, and there are SEVERE staffing problems throughout the system that make it more so. Raising money should be something head offices do, not field offices. Field offices simply don’t have enough resources for that. No one can simply wave a magic wand and make thousands of dollars appear.

    I am capable of criticizing how resettlement is conducted. I would hardly call anything I’ve written on this blog uncritical.

    If you feel so passionately about this, why don’t you volunteer to do fundraising for your local resettlement agency? I can guarantee they’d welcome the help.

    The solutions here are not “less refugees” or “cut the volags’ money,” they are smarter funding mechanisms, better staff training and recruitment, and better oversight. With the oversight part, it would be better if ORR was as zealous about making sure resettlement offices were staffed and outfitted properly by their head offices than shutting them down or threatening to do so. They way things work now provides incentives for secrecy and discourages field staff from asking for help when they need it.

  13. I am a huge refugee supporter. I’ve spent a lot of my own money helping dozens of refugee families. I could not, however, help raise money for our local refugee resettlement agency that has repeatedly cheated refugees and treated them badly. I also could not recommend increased public funding when there is little accountability for the money being spent now.

    The national resettlement agencies are currently allowed to monitor themselves. That doesn’t work. Problems are repeatedly covered up. The government conducts inspections with advanced notice. That doesn’t work. We need a system that will allow the public to have confidence in the system, and that will protect the good resettlement agencies from being tarnished by the ones that cheat and neglect refugees.

  14. Then you shouldn’t sign contracts will require that the refugees be provided with these minimum required items. The contracts don’t say “card tables”, and don’t say all clothes for every refugee “except if you can get the refugee to agree not to accept clothes.

  15. I’m glad you’re a refugee supporter, but accusing resettlement offices of cheating their clients is dishonest and unhelpful. Someone once accused staff at the agency I work for of keeping money for themselves because the office was struggling to fill gaps. We all had a good laugh about that. There really isn’t any money to misuse. Hell, we can’t even afford a new copier right now.

    And let’s be honest, few members of the public know anything about refugee resettlement, and fewer still care at all. Calls from people like Ann Corcoran and her toxic friend Judy to “increase accountability” are, in general, thinly veiled attempts to limit the numbers of refugees being admitted to the US.

    Believe me, I KNOW the system is broken and needs to be reformed. Refugees aren’t being served as they should be. But demonizing the resettlement agencies and their already underpaid, overworked and poorly supported staff is NOT going to help anyone.

    If anyone deserves your anger, it’s the neglectful head offices of struggling resettlement agencies and ORR, which is never quite grounded in the same reality field staff are.

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