It seems that every day now, we receive live updates regarding the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. The global community is abuzz with discussions about sanctions, reactions to heart-wrenching photos of suffering Ukrainians, and talks of a new refugee crisis in Europe. However, refugee crises are nothing new, with recent wars in the Middle East and elsewhere creating significant influxes of migrants, immigrants, and refugees to countries around the world. By the end of 2020, 82.4 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced due to persecution, violence, human rights concerns, or other disruptive events. People’s desire to flee war and persecution reflects a fundamental human instinct: The will to survive.
Luckily, in recent decades, organizations have sprung up to assist those in search of a safer home, including The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was created in 1950 to assist millions of European refugees following World War II. Since then, it has continued to advocate for people’s right to settle in a place safe from persecution. The UNHCR currently has 17,878 personnel working in 132 countries and had a budget of $8.6 billion in 2019. The international financial and personnel support UNHCR receives reflects the global community’s continued commitment to helping those impacted by persecution. However, while international organizations like the UNHCR play a crucial role in advocating for refugee rights, much of the work to resettle refugees and immigrants is completed by local community organizations. In the U.S., refugee resettlement agencies handle everything from picking up families from the airport, to setting up a family’s first apartment, to providing language-learning courses to help refugees succeed in English-based jobs.
The Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE) is an organization dedicated to supporting refugees and immigrants in the Nashville area. Since NICE’s founding in 2005, the organization has served 34,500 people, with a focus on providing new community members with language learning, health, employment, and educational resources so they can succeed in their adopted city. NICE was founded by Sudanese refugees who experienced the challenges of resettling in the U.S. with a limited educational background as a result of growing up in a war-torn country. This inspired the founders to create programs that would empower refugees and immigrants to become economically self-sufficient, which is of particular importance as the non-housing financial assistance provided by the U.S. government amounts to a modest $1,025 per refugee.
NICE started out teaching community English courses and has since grown into a multiservice local refugee agency that works with federal agencies and other local nonprofits to help settle and support refugees in Nashville. This can include everything from connecting refugees to the SNAP program (previously known as Food Stamps), to helping prepare refugees for the U.S. citizenship test. Recently, NICE assisted more than 130 Afghan evacuees fleeing persecution that has become prevalent in their country since the withdrawal of U.S. troops and reinstatement of the Taliban regime. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, NICE is also anticipating assisting Ukrainian refugees in the near future. Several former refugees, including a few assisted by NICE when they first arrived, are currently NICE staff members, which is a testament to the organization’s programmatic success.
The financial tools and assistance NICE provides recent refugees is invaluable, as establishing economic security is the first step towards achieving stability and greater comfortability in a new country. In Fatima Farheen Mirza’s novel A Place for Us, Mirza explores an immigrant Indian-Muslim family’s struggle to find a sense of belonging and identity in the U.S.. More specifically, this work highlights how immigrant children struggle to juggle their parent’s values, which are often from another time, place, and culture, with American norms. It’s tempting for outsiders to assume that things only go uphill once an immigrant or refugee family safely reaches their new home country. However, establishing physical safety and economic security does not mean a family is successfully settled. Mirza challenges the emphasis placed on economic self-sufficiency when it comes to supporting immigrant families by exploring the challenges immigrants, particularly children, face when it comes to achieving social acceptance in their new community. Thus, although establishing economic self-sufficiency is pivotal to helping refugees succeed in a new country, Mirza’s novel suggests that securing economic self-sufficiency is just the first of many difficult steps necessary to establishing identity and achieving a sense of belonging in a new country.
With this in mind, I asked NICE’s Associate Director of Development Max Rykov how the organization assists refugee children who face linguistic and/or cultural obstacles when trying to learn and socialize in a new country. Rykov discussed how NICE works closely with Metro Nashville Public Schools to help educate teachers on the trauma many refugee children have experienced during their long journey to the U.S.. Oftentimes, children have endured hardships and poverty in refugee camps in at least two countries before finally arriving in the U.S.. Not surprisingly, this poses unique challenges to their learning and adjustment to life in Nashville. To address language barriers, NICE also provides intervention assistance for schools and refugee families when needed. Furthermore, recognizing the importance of peer mentors in helping refugee children acclimate to a new country and culture, NICE works with other local organizations to provide refugee children with youth mentors.
Non-profit work is challenging, and often takes an emotional toll on those in the field. There are especially high rates of burnout among those who are tasked with supporting traumatized people and dealing with frustrating government agencies. Oftentimes, those who work at organizations like NICE spend significant energy fighting for basic human rights and assistance. I asked Rykov about the challenges of sustaining extensive programming and what keeps him going. “Seeing people’s successes and being able to integrate, or find that job, or being able to advance an English level, or seeing a kid kind of come out of their shell and be able to express themselves more freely, is what drives our staff,” Rykov said. “Probably the most joyous moment is when people arrive at the airport, and they’re greeted by their [new] community.”
While these moments of success fuel Rykov’s work in the field, he also acknowledged the importance of taking breaks to recharge, so that he can best serve refugees in his work at NICE. “We have to be mindful of our mental health,” Rykov said. “People who do more intensive case management are hearing stories from people that are really harrowing. The situations that people came from…they’re really tragic and not something that we experience in our day to day lives,” Rykov explained. “Anyone who does any kind of social service work very much needs time to unwind and take some space from it too, because we’re not going to do our best work and provide the best care and services [to] people we’re trying to support if we’re not in a great mental or emotional space.”
With the plethora of challenges that refugees and immigrants face in the U.S., from navigating a complex health care system, to finding affordable housing, to dealing with a non-existent safety net should anything go awry, there are several policy modifications that could help organizations like NICE better assist refugees. First, the federal government could adjust current policies to increase the non-housing stipend given to refugees. The current amount of $1,025 per refugee is supposed to last for three months, and is a flat rate given to refugees, regardless of what city they are resettled in. This modest amount should be dramatically increased to provide refugees with “rainy day” savings that they can rely on during their journey to becoming economically self-sufficient. In addition, this stipend should be adjusted according to various cities’ cost of living. A refugee family resettled in New York City will likely need a larger stipend than a family resettled in Nashville. The government should account for these differences in their aid calculations.
Moreover, it can take months and even years for refugees to develop proficiency in English. Before they reach proficiency and comfortability in a new language, refugees are often restricted to unstable low-paying jobs. Rykov mentioned that this poses a significant obstacle to refugees’ ability to afford housing once government assistance runs out. Thus, adjusting policy to increase the length of time refugees receive rent assistance from the U.S. government would help organizations like NICE focus on addressing refugee needs beyond those pertaining to basic economic survival. As previously mentioned, refugees are often traumatized from experiences with war, poverty, and rape that pose a significant challenge to their successful resettlement. As a result, many refugees would benefit from therapy and psychiatric care. Adopting policy that increases government support for housing and a savings stipend would free NICE and other similar organizations to focus their limited resources on educational and medical interventions that would more holistically address refugee needs. In addition, policies that provide economic incentives for property management companies to rent housing to refugees should be adopted. Refugees often don’t have a credit score or letter of guaranteed income due to their recent arrival, which makes it challenging for them to find housing after government assistance runs out. Adopting rent policies that provide more flexibility for refugees would help organizations like NICE more easily connect refugees with stable housing.
In addition, policy mandating that drivers’ license tests be provided in multiple languages, particularly languages spoken by significant refugee populations, would help refugees more easily obtain drivers licenses that can lead to greater economic self-sufficiency. This would enable organizations like NICE to address refugee needs beyond basic economic survival and navigating government bureaucracies. Furthermore, many refugees, including those from war-torn countries, are given entry into the U.S. under “humanitarian parole” status. This severely limits the economic support these refugees can receive from the U.S. government. Rykov emphasized how a Congressional law shifting refugees from “humanitarian parole” to “lawful permanent resident” status would help refugees access much-needed government services. Being able to access basic government services would bolster refugees’ economic self-sufficiency and provide a modest safety net as they resettle in the U.S..
The number of displaced people will continue to increase as wars arise and climate change forces people from their homelands. Thus, it is imperative to reform current policies and create new policies to better support refugees and refugee resettlement agencies. Whether it’s streamlining the application process for asylum, or increasing financial support for refugee resettlement, there is much work to be done at the global, national, and local level to better assist refugees in their quest for a safer home.
If you’re interested, you can support NICE’s work by donating here.