Putting refugees on their feet

IN its 10 years of operation, the resettlement program here has helped some 3,000 refugees with a high rate of success. These people come to the United States from all around the world, mostly from nations torn by civil war or ruled by repressive governments. ``Success is when they don't need to come back and see me anymore,'' says Bozena Sabala, the caseworker for Polish refugees at the Portland Diocesan Human Relations Services Refugee Resettlement Program. At any one time, she and her eight colleagues, four of whom were once refugees themselves, work with from one to 15 individuals or families.

Unlike many of the estimated 70,000 refugees who arrive in the US each year, few of the people helped by the Portland center end up on welfare. And unlike other US resettlement communities that have experienced violence - most often sparked by local residents' resistance to, or misunderstanding of, refugees - the Portland area has accepted the refugees almost without incident.

Claude Carrier, the center's director, says, ``Basically, if a person is working to provide for himself, Mainers will reach out and help.''

But community acceptance is more specifically a result of work done by his center, a service of the US Catholic Conference. The work - in the space of about three months - is to rebuild each refugee's entire life: shelter, employment, health care, language (they must learn English), schooling, child care, and as much contact as possible with local residents who can support them.

One key to the center's success is good, broad-based relations with the community. The center runs outreach seminars and cultural events for adults and for children in the local school system. An evening seminar, for example, might include a talk by an economics expert on the financial impact refugees have on a community. What many people don't understand, says Mr. Carriere, is that ``an employed refugee doesn't take jobs away from locals, he creates jobs.'' Refugees need teachers, doctors, and grocery stores, he adds.

This is particularly important for Portland residents to understand, as the economy here has been through some rough years in the last decade. According to a recent report by the US Committee for Refugees, another resettlement agency: ``Increasingly, refugees are presented not as people in need of help, but as people who constitute a threat to the order of things; they do not have problems, they are the problem.''

It is also important, says Carriere, for people to understand that refugees are here because the US is signatory to a United Nations protocol on the status of refugees. According to the official definition of the UN office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees are people who have proven to officials in the country to which they have fled that they have ``a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion'' if they return to their homeland.

The center's community outreach comes mostly through the work of Peter Marbach, the voluntary resource coordinator. His job is to find local residents, churches, businesses, and social groups that can provide goods, temporary staffing, or services to the refugee program.

About a year ago, for example, Mr. Marbach decided to set up a thrift shop that would make clothing and household items available to the refugees. It's now run by a woman who is taking part in the state's ``workfare'' program.

But the bedrock of a successful refugee program is an agency's ability to find permanent and satisfying employment for the refugees, according to workers here and at other US resettlement agencies.

Of 25 members on the Portland center's staff, five are devoted to employment services. They comb the community for jobs, and screen the refugees to find out what level of education they have and what practical skills they possess. Portland's program ``places a lot of focus on helping them [refugees] get the skills they need, and it is viewed very favorably by the community,'' says Joan Muldoon, head of the ``workfare'' program of Portland's Social Services Department.

By the time they begin looking for jobs, refugees have already been provided with the basic necessities of life. Keeping their integration into the community on track depends on landing jobs for them within about three months. At that point, the federal money allotted to each refugee - about $400 a month - runs out.

The funds come through the US State Department, the agency initially responsible for resettling refugees. The State Department parcels the refugees out to 12 voluntary agencies. These 12 agencies, which have contracts with State, are responsible for choosing where each refugee will be resettled and for seeing that his integration is successful.

Like many of the refugee resettlement programs in the US, Portland's center is finding it increasingly difficult to succeed on the federal funds provided. According to one refugee official, funds have not kept up with inflation. And, federal job-training programs, which many resettlement agencies used to take part in, have become virtually nonexistent.

Of particular concern to the Portland staff is keeping the refugees from ending up with jobs that are below their skill and educational levels. ``A just society is one that allows for the placement of a person at the apex of his or her ability,'' says Carriere. ``These people need wholeness. They need to feel full, to be challenged, and to feel good about themselves.''

To counter underemployment, the center's staff would like to set up a program to work with community businesses that agree to employ refugees while they are learning specific skills or improving their English. The center would pay 50 percent of their salaries and provide or arrange for any other training they need for an agreed-upon period. It will cost an estimated $100,000 to put about 30 people through the program in one year.

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