Giving back: After winning asylum himself, he helps new refugees get settled

Carlos Barria/Reuters
An asylum-seeker from El Salvador holds her daughter’s hand, several days after they were reunited following their separation at the US-Mexican border, in Brentwood, Md., July 25.
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A political asylee who was kidnapped and tortured in Uganda, George – who spoke on condition his real name not be used – is one of hundreds of caseworkers across the country helping newly arrived refugees navigate US bureaucracy. Over the past two years, the federal government has cut refugee resettlement by nearly 75 percent – and with it, the accompanying per capita funding allocated to agencies. George helps the newcomers secure everything from housing to cookware on a shoestring budget, and get enrolled in Social Security and public school. What he lacks in time or money, George makes up for in understanding, patience, and generosity, often paying for refugees’ rent or groceries out of his own pocket – even as he works two jobs and attends law school full time. Arriving in the United States with only a backpack several years ago, he planned to attend a conference, seek medical treatment, and then go home. But concerns for his safety persuaded him to stay. Now he sets an example for others that it is possible to come here and rebuild a life. “[T]his was the work I wanted, to help people,” he says.

Why We Wrote This

Where does the motivation come from to help? For one caseworker, his own hardship has given him the grit and generosity to pave the way to opportunity for others.

George doesn’t drive like a man who fled for his life.

He pilots his modest sedan at 30 m.p.h. in a 40 m.p.h. zone, passing stone walls, baseball fields, and a shuttered consignment shop surrounded by weeds en route to Lowell, Mass. There, a newly arrived family of Guatemalan refugees awaits his help.

His phone rings. It is always ringing.

Why We Wrote This

Where does the motivation come from to help? For one caseworker, his own hardship has given him the grit and generosity to pave the way to opportunity for others.

“Hallo?” he says, softly.

It’s about a Congolese family that has had a bumpy first week.

They need food stamps, the caller says. Are you coming today?

“Yes, I’m coming,” George assures him. “I’ll be coming anytime.”

A Ugandan political asylee who has made a new life for himself in the US, George is now on the front lines of a daily battle to find newly arrived refugees housing, furniture, and cookware on a shoestring budget. He is one of hundreds of caseworkers across the country helping them navigate US bureaucracy at a time when many resettlement agencies have had to scale back their operations. Over the past two years, the federal government has cut refugee resettlement by nearly 75 percent – and with it, the accompanying per capita funding allocated to agencies.

“So now I am doing everything by myself, which makes everything hard,” says George, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used, fearful for his safety after being kidnapped and tortured in Uganda. He often falls behind on crucial paperwork while spending hours ferrying refugees from one bureaucrat to the next and fielding their calls in the middle of the night when crises arise.

But what he lacks in time or money, George makes up for in understanding, patience, and generosity. And perhaps more than anything, he sets an inspiring example for others that it is possible to come here and rebuild a life.

Bullets and a kidnapping 

Back in Uganda, George ran for parliament as part of the opposition in 2011, but government officials pressured him to step down. When he refused, gunmen pursued him in a car chase and sprayed him with bullets. He narrowly escaped.

Then he was kidnapped.

“The election was on Friday, we were taken on Thursday,” he says. He was tortured along with three other members of his campaign, for several days. “They threw us in a forest area, and the police picked us [up] like picking dead bodies.”

A year later, he came to the US with only a backpack, intending to attend a conference in the Boston area, seek medical treatment, and then go home.

“After coming here, things changed,” he says. The newspapers back home had reported on the conference, organized by his ethnic minority group to discuss how they could “get a share of the cake” in Uganda. “Within two weeks, I decided not to go back.”

But he didn’t know whom to trust, so he cut all ties with Ugandans and hailed a taxi from Boston’s South Station in hopes of finding a cheap hotel, but they were all full.

The Algerian driver called his Moroccan friend. I have someone here, he is our brother from Africa, he said. Can you help him?

He said yes.

George stayed with the Moroccan friend for a month, got a laptop and a lawyer, and applied for asylum. If I need anything, I’ll call you, he recalls his lawyer telling him in January 2013. He waited months for word that his application had been approved, a crucial prerequisite to getting permission to work.

In August, he found out she still hadn’t filed his application.

“So that was the first challenge,” says George.

Finally, by January 2014, he landed his first job – at Dunkin’ Donuts. He liked the butter pecan iced coffee and the “old-fashioned” donut. But he soon moved on to refueling airplanes at Logan International Airport. Then he got a commercial driving license to drive tractor-trailer trucks, but ended up working as a valet.

Then he heard about a job he was especially suited for: refugee caseworker with the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center (RIAC) in Boston. The only problem was the $2 per hour pay cut.

“But this was the work I wanted, to help people,” says George, who started with RIAC in early 2016. After a year, he got a raise that more than made up the difference. But he still works a second job as a concierge at a fancy hotel in Boston, which gives him health care benefits. Meanwhile, he’s going to law school full-time in the evenings.

As hard as he’s working to earn a living though, he knows it’s even harder for newly arrived refugees.  

Money from his own pocket  

When George pulls up in front of the Guatemalan family’s home in Lowell, the parents cram into the backseat with their sons – one a high school senior and the other a boy growing so fast that none of his clothes fit since arriving a couple of weeks ago.

The family got $4,500 in federal “welcome money,” which is supposed to last them for three months. Even with their cheap rental – $1,200 a month – by the time they paid first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit, there was less than $1,000 left – and they ate into that with a few miscellaneous expenses.

Before they got any additional funds or had time to secure a job, the landlord was already asking about the second month’s rent. They didn’t have enough to cover it.

“I am managing their account, I know there was no money,” says George, who paid about $550 out of his own pocket to cover the difference. He knows he will likely not get it back. “I had to do whatever it takes,” he says. In Massachusetts, refugees can also qualify for food stamps and cash assistance, depending on their circumstances. But even then, they can’t always cover their grocery bills. “Sometimes you take them shopping and they pick out more than they can pay for,” he adds. “So you pay the rest.”

How many times has he done that?

“Many times,” he says. “I’m trying to fight for them.”

As George drives the Guatemalan family downtown to get the kids enrolled in school, the father asks how long it should take to get their Social Security cards. A month? Three weeks?

“Everything is taking a long time,” says George.

George manages to find the one empty parking spot on the block and takes the family past the old brick storefronts into Lowell’s Family Resource Center to enroll their children in an American future. Amid signs like “Hate has no home here” and “The Road to Success Begins with Good Attendance,” the older boy zeroes in on a Lowell High School T-shirt for sale.

“Looks like a great shirt!” he says in flawless American English, his eyes lighting up.

George makes sure they have all the necessary paperwork – birth certificates, immunizations, proof of address – and shakes hands with all four of them.

“Call me if you need anything,” he says, and he heads off to Worcester, nearly an hour away, to help the Congolese family. 

Patience required

The Congolese are living on Diamond St., which long ago lost any resemblance to its name. After a brief visit with the family, George loads up his car with three young Congolese refugees and drives over to the local Social Security Administration. He pops open the trunk and rifles through a car jack, jumper cables, and a cascading pile of folders to find the documents he needs. When they walk to the entrance, they find a line out the door. After an hour and a half of waiting among screaming babies and disgruntled adults, it’s finally their turn.

“All of you?” asks the lady behind the glass. “Oh no, no, no, I’m not taking all these,” she declares, rubbing her forehead.

George explains that these are the refugees they didn’t get to yesterday when he ran out of time getting their relatives processed, and sits down in front of the glass window. Gentle but persistent.

Finally, the lady behind the glass stamps a big bureaucratic stamp, and passes the completed Social Security card applications back through the window. 

Late-night lunch, then homework

By the time he heads home, it’s early evening and George still hasn’t eaten lunch. He needs to do his law school homework, but he’ll spend the night fielding phone calls from the Congolese family, which is trying to navigate local taxis and the hospital system with a sick baby and little English. After a day of paperwork tomorrow, he has class at night for several hours, then he’ll work an overnight shift as concierge.

He’ll try not to think too much about the teetering stacks of folders on top of his filing cabinet, or the fact that he used to split this work with colleagues.  He’ll wish RIAC still had the van that someone donated to them, so he didn’t have to make so many trips ferrying refugees around, but the van broke down and there was no money to fix it.

Despite such challenges, he’s focused on the opportunities he has here in America – not the sacrifices he is making.

He grew up in a poor family, missing years of school at a time due to war, and went back to get a college degree after getting married. His wife and children are still in Uganda. But pursuing a law degree now is incredibly empowering, especially for someone who grew up under a dictator. With a law degree, he says, “You can challenge anyone.”

Indeed, the rule of law in America provides a refuge, a protecting principle that supersedes even the most powerful elected officials. And thus, despite all the challenges for refugees and asylum seekers in the US right now, for many it’s still better than back home, he says.

“Our government is fearless,” he says. They can do anything … the leader bends the system,” he says. “But here there are some things you cannot bend.”

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