The long and arduous process includes Akron
as a key resettlement sanctuary
Story by Tom Crain
Walk any neighborhood in North Hill these days and you’re bound to take note of a distinctive culture of new immigrants frequenting the residential sidewalks, business districts, school playgrounds and city parks. They wear colorful shawls, saris and robes of homespun wool accessorized with decorative gold and coral headpieces, bangles, rounded wool caps and turbans. Most talk in a funny dialect called Nepali (similar to Hindi or Punjabi) accompanied with a written alphabet resembling “chicken scratch.”
These distinctive and striking people have also created a new crop of Asian markets piled floor to ceiling with rice-filled burlap sacks, shelves of dried mango powder, cardamom pods, fermented millet wine and in back, goat meat and pig’s feet. New cafes feature the popular cuisine of momo (dumplings) and thukpa (noodle soup). The many who are non-Christian, congregate in temples practicing Hindu and Buddhism. The youth form their own soccer clubs and also play cricket. These tight-knit families can also be seen on warm, sunny days fishing, frogging, berrying and ‘shrooming all along the city’s nature trails.
Just who are these strange and colorful people growing in numbers throughout the past decade in Akron? It’s the Bhutanese, Akron’s most visible Asian refugees, resettled from Nepal — a country tucked between India and China — and nearby Myanmar, formerly Burma. These long suffering people have been jettisoned nearly 9,000 miles to Akron from primitive refugee camps in Nepal after being cast out from their homeland.
According to the Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland, Northeast Ohio has received more than 2,500 refugees since 2008, including the Bhutanese, from areas of conflict across the world throughout Southeast Asia, and also Africa and the Middle East. Most of the Northeast Ohio refugees are arriving not only from Nepal, but also from Myanmar, Iraq and Somalia. The first Bhutanese family arrived in 2008 in Akron, the year after the U.S. agreed to accept 60,000 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali descent. In the past six years, it is estimated that 2,000-5,000 Bhutanese have been formally relocated to Akron. By most professional estimates, Akron has the largest concentration of Bhutanese in the entire U.S.
How did thousands of these colorful Bhutanese land in Akron of all places?
Any refugee who comes to the U.S. must be “invited” by the U.S. State Department to be granted legal resident status on the ultimate pathway to U.S. citizenship. They must wait one year to obtain a Permanent Resident Alien (PRA) status (a.k.a. “green card”) and five years to gain citizenship. Most refugees first pre-apply on their own,
In order to be considered a bona fide “refugee,” you must have fled your country of origin and met the United Nations’ criteria of having a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Most apply for refugee status themselves, through the The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And, then, must pass through a series of medical screenings, background checks and personal interviews.
The march of the Volags overseeing resettlement needs
After refugee selection is completed, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) kicks in to provide resettled refugees with longer-term (90 days) cash and medical assistance, as well as language and social services focused on early employment and self-sufficiency. This is often where pushback and negative sentiment from some already-established community members comes into play (see future article on this topic).
DHHS appoints nine domestic nongovernmental organizations with some 350 affiliated offices across the U.S. responsible for resettling the refugees in various U.S. communities. These organizations are known as “Voluntary Agencies” (or more affectionately called “volags”) who have “cooperative agreements” with Department of State/Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) that specify the services the agencies must provide, including oversight of the agency’s local affiliates. In Ohio, these local affiliate resettlement agencies are found in its five largest cities–Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Akron.
The official resettlement agency representing Akron is the International Institute of Akron (IIA), headquartered in North Hill, where the majority of Bhutanese now reside. IIA is an affiliate of the VOLAG United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
As a VOLAG affiliate, IIA provides services such as meeting the refugees at the airport, preparing their housing arrangements, helping refugees find English classes, medical care, social and language services and employment, and registering children for school.
IIA is one of 10 Ohio Refugee Resettlement Agencies receiving funding from a variety of sources, including: Relocation and placement money from the U.S. Department of State; grants from their county department of job and family services and ORR; and local community and government funding sources.
The ‘per head” allocation for each refugee is currently $925-$1125.The fee range depends upon the refugees’ “vulnerabilities” and is used primarily to defray a refugee’s costs during the first few months after their arrival.
Mary Raitano, IIA’s Director of Refugee Resettlement
Roughly $1000 allocation per refugee doesn’t go very far, sometimes mostly allocated just to secure a payment for a hotel room or apartment,” explains Mary Raitano, IIA’s Director of Refugee Resettlement. “Our administrative costs pay for all transportation, interpreting and case management,” she says. “And it’s all supposed to take place within a three month window, but we can extend to 90 days. It’s used for such basic elements as housing, utilities and clothing. For our vulnerable refugees with special needs, we are allowed to put $200 into a ‘flex fund.’ ”
Needless to say, It’s quite a whirlwind for the refugees the first 30-90 days they touch American ground. Within 10 days, they have to be enrolled in employment and English language services. Within fourteen days, they have to apply for their Social Security card. Within, 30 days, any school-aged children have to be enrolled in school, any male between 18-26 years old needs to be registered for the the draft and all have to undergo health screenings. In between time, all adult refugees have to go to the Job Center daily from 7:30 -3:30 to secure a job.
Refugee can access more than a dozen programs on the same basis as a U.S. citizen which makes the refugee resettlement program a lightning rod for politicians, organizations and activists critical of new immigrant policies.
World history dictating the ebb and flow of refugee resettlement in America
Since the post-World War II years, when the U.S. began accepting large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, both humanitarian and political goals have driven U.S. refugee and asylum policy. Refugee legislation was first enacted in 1948 after more than 250,000 displaced Europeans were admitted into the country; the new legislation allowed for the admission of an additional 400,000. During the Cold War, the U.S. admitted refugees fleeing Europe, the Soviet Union, East Asia, and Cuba for humanitarian reasons and also in an attempt to weaken communist regimes.These waves of refugees were largely assisted by religious and ethnic organizations that became the foundation of the public-private partnership in resettlement that exists today. After Vietnam fell in 1975, the U.S. resettled thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia, and soon enacted the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided the legal framework for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program today.
At its inception, the U.S. refugee resettlement program provided up to three years of support to refugees to promote integration. Since the mid-1990s, however, eligibility periods for support have been reduced and early self-sufficiency has become the chief priority of the program. The USDS notes that “the U.S. refugee resettlement program has found that people learn English and begin to function comfortably much faster if they start work soon after arrival. The Refugee Act of 1980 includes an emphasis on early employment. The U.S. government expects a working-age refugee to find a job within six months of arrival. But that’s not always the case.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series on the new Asian Immigrant in Akron…
“Cities that welcome immigrants reap benefits, national officials say.” Columbus Dispatch, July 10, 2015.
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Office of Refugee Resettlement
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
Refugee Resettlement Watch
Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland