SIV

SIV aka Special Immigrant Visas are visas that were created by the State Department in 2008 to help aide Iraqi nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S.

Championed by Senator Ted Kennedy the SIV program was successful in bringing over almost 5,000 former Iraqi translators and contractors. The SIV program streamlines the refugee application allowing Iraqi’s to escape a hostile and dangerous environment.

Unfortunately there is no such SIV program in place for Afghan translators and contractors. Instead, as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, Afghan’s who worked for the U.S. government  are being hunted and killed by the Taliban as they wait for Refugee visas to the U.S.

This SIV program was one of the provisions we discussed when visiting Illinois house representatives in August. Specifically hoped this issue would appeal to representative Randy Hultgren. Hultgren is a staunchly conservative republican who does not believe in a pathway to citizenship. Yet the SIV program is something we hoped he’d get behind before heading back to DC in September. His district has a substantial Afghan community, and because of the military aspect the SIV program it appeals to a more conservative base.

Attached below is a short New York Times article highlighting this issue. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/world/asia/american-visa-delays-put-safety-out-of-afghan-interpreters-reach.html?pagewanted=all

Immigration Reform

My internship began in midst of  heated debates on immigration reform. Immigration reform, or rather the lack of reform will have a large impact on the refugee community. Thus during my internship I continually read about developing changes and shifts in the immigration debate as well as focused on specific bills and provisions that pertained to refugees.

After the senate passed their immigration bill on June 28th, like the rest of the country our interest shifted onto the house. I worked to setup meetings with representatives targeted by Illinois Coalition for Refugee Rights (a partnering organization) during the August recces. I was surprised and almost uplifted by the receptiveness of the rep’s staff and offices. Not  because they were republican representatives but because of the actual access a citizen had to participatory governance. Perhaps this skepticism came from the work I had done in South Africa were there is absolutely no communication between officials and the public. Regardless, I was impressed that such staunchly conservative offices with clear statements against immigration reform would take the time to meet.

Congo: The Road to Ruin

http://www.nytimes.com/video/2013/07/22/opinion/100000002350917/congo-the-road-to-ruin.html

A small part of my work at RefugeeOne has been helping to work on news updates and creating a monthly e-newsletter for refugee advocacy and immigration organizations.

About a week ago I saw this short video on the New York times website. I really enjoyed this video for a couple reasons. Even though I am in constant contact with refugees I often forget the difficulties and horrors of which they escaped. This video, unlike many of the articles and clips I have watched relies on real footage and minimal amount of text or explanation. In turn, the video is jarring, confusing and very real. Its journalism like this that I find most powerful and re-connected me with the harrowing realities of refugees path to a better life.

Orientation

On every Friday newly arrived refugees attend orientation. Mandated by DHS (Department for Human Services) this four-class orientation covers the basics of transitioning into American life. Yesterday I went to the fourth orientation held at local church. Yesterdays topics covered home safety, public benefits, domestic abuse and nutrition. Each topic was presented by a specialist or a case worker whose speech would then be translated into the four or five different languages needed for clients. Because there were so many different translators speaking at once and so many crying babies I felt like a large amount of the speakers information was lost in the clutter. Regardless, it was interesting hearing what is considered the “vitals” and “basics” of American life.

I sat with a case worker friend and her Liberian clients. (A good portion of the last few days were spent trying to figure out a bed bug problem at their daughters apartment.) Still they were in good spirits, while there is lots of information too take in, the orientation is exciting. For most of these families this orientation marks their fourth week in the U.S.

For me the most interesting part of orientation was learning about public benefits. I had been learning about benefits, cash assistance, food stamps, SSI etc, through daily conversation at work and was familiar with housing benefits such as LIHEAP through my work, but it was nice learning about the basics of the benefits. These programs are absolutely essential for these families, but are almost always  supplements to the assistance we provide them. Families cannot truly survive on public aide, thus getting a stable job as soon as possible is crucial. Applying and understanding which benefits your eligible for can be pretty complicated. Further public aide has very rigid guidelines. Messing up or sneaking around (not reporting your employment status for example) can result in huge consequences. For the Liberians they were recently granted TANIF (temporary assistance for needy families) which is one of the more generous programs.

Realities

This post should be more aptly titled frustrating realities. Last Thursday was spent in  Evanston at a recently rented four bedroom apartment. This wedensday an Iranian family of nine will be moving in. I had coordinated with the gas company serving the Evanston area and waited with the keys to the gas meter from 12-4 pm. Unfortunately the gas company never came.

While annoying these frustrations are the realities of coordinating and working with big companies. What is distressing is that in the near future the Iranian family is going have to deal with these frustrations. This is not to say that Refugeee’s have not dealt with frustration. On the contrary the processes of reaching the US is full of frustrating bureaucracy. In my mind what separates a frustration (like the gas company) from the frustrations of the past is the idea of perfection many refugees have about America. Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations that are built in some Refugee’s minds about America and how they see themselves re-setteling and living. Thus when things are distressing and frustrating in America it can be a huge disappointment and shock to refugees. 

Our job is to help them navigate these frustrations during their first year of resettlement, but there’s a certain extent and length in which the organization can help.  At some point they too will realize that while America has figured a lot out, frustrations are a reality across countries, class and ethnicity.

 

 

Resettlement

While there has not been a “typical day,’ the majority of my work thus far has revolved around advocacy/policy research and setting up utilities/searching for housing for clients. Last week however the staff member who typically sets up the homes for arriving refugees was on vacation, this gave me the opportunity to help ‘prep’ a house for an incoming Somali family. At the office there is a constant stream of refugee clients throughout the day, but when prepping the house I was involved in an immeadite and essential part of a refugees resettlement.

Firstly I went to an ethnic grocery store in Rogers Park (the northernmost neighborhood of Chicag where many of our clients live.) There I followed a shopping list crafted for Somali families as well as picked up a halal meal consisting of rice and chicken. The U.S. government actually requires all resettlement agencies to provide a hot meal for refugees. The main goal is to make a person or family as comfortable as possible. Because refugees often fly the cheapest possible routes, the flights can take days to reach Chicago. Extremely tired and often overwhelmed, familiar foods and a hot meal are an important first step.

My day came to a culmination when I delivered the food to their new  home. Although wiped out from the trip and a clear language barrier the relief and excitement was evident in their faces. 

It begins

Id like to apologize to all 5 million of my readers for my slow uptake on the blogging. Have been at RefugeeOne for a solid ten days, the first 5 or so were spent on orientation.

One of my first surprises about the organization is its size, RefugeeOne has about 50 full time employees making it the largest resettlement agency in Chicago. I was expecting a small overworked staff. I was right on the overworking, but that is nature of the work. Clients never stop coming.

I have been working primarily in the housing sector, two days ago I went to a meeting with ComED Chicago’s largest electricity supplier to discuss LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). While I couldn’t follow all of the acronyms being tossed around, the meeting was definitely interesting. Overall I am excited to get into my work and keep exploring Chicago.

Lastly the clip posted is a video I took at the world refugee day soccer tournament hosted by RefugeeOne and other organizations. If this isn’t natural talent then I don’t know what is!

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