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.
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.