Numbering 17.1 million in the world, refugees cannot return home for fear of death. Displaced by war, famine and genocide, they have fled in search of safety. No longer safe in the countries to which they have been displaced, they rely on the help of nations like Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.
The State Department’s proposed ceiling for refugees entering the U.S. in 2004 is 70,000. According to case workers, Indianapolis receives somewhere between 50 and 70 a year. The numbers dropped to near zero after Sept. 11 because of increased security, but this year, due to a backlog, the amount of refugees is expected to surge to 200.
Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, made headlines last year when he stepped down as leader of a nation crumbling under his rule. Pressure from other African countries, rebel groups and the U.S. forced him into exile, ending what had been 14 years of despotism and corruption, but Liberia is still unstable.
“The soldiers kill for no reason,” said Elkinah Logan, 40, who has not been back to his home country of Liberia for over a decade. One morning in 1990, the shooting started, he said, and, not being armed or willing to join the rebels, the choice was simple: either run or die.
“It was a mass exodus,” he said. Once he and others reached the Ivory Coast, they were met by workers from the United Nations, CARE and other humanitarian groups. Logan lived in refugee camps for 14 years until the Ivory Coast started to become unsafe.
“I was at college-school age when this war started,” he said. “It has been going on for the past 16 years. You can imagine the amount of time I have wasted, but with all of that I didn’t lose hope.” Working minimum-wage jobs for now, Logan wants to continue his education, hoping to eventually return home to help his people overcome poverty and corruption.
There are several agencies in Indianapolis that resettle refugees. The federal government provides six months of financial assistance for each refugee, but requires that refugees be employed by the end of that time. The majority do find jobs — usually food service or hotel work — but assimilation is not easy.
“It’s always a challenge to get people to understand that we are doing the best we can with what he have,” said Joyce Overton from Catholic Social Services. Refugees often arrive with great expectations, she said, having heard myths about receiving $5,000 cash, a new home and a job upon arrival.
The language barrier is also a formidable obstacle. Many gain enough English in six months or less to survive, but others are at a serious disadvantage. Somali Bantus come from an oral culture. They are completely illiterate. Others, like the Liberians arriving now, have been in the refugee camps since they were teen-agers or younger.
“You just can’t bring them and throw them into society,” said Alma Smith, a Liberian American. Fearing for the safety of her children, Smith came to the U.S. in 1982 after Samuel Doe came to power. Under Doe’s dictatorship, ethnic tensions grew, sparking civil war and the gradual erosion of Liberia’s security.
After federal assistance ends, refugees are eligible for the same benefits and programs as U.S. citizens, including education and welfare. Coming from hardship to compete with Americans for jobs is strenuous and, to the dismay of Smith and other Liberian Americans, refugees receive no additional help.
The Liberian American community is petitioning Congress to grant recent Liberian arrivals Temporary Protection Status. Under TPS, assistance can be extended to 18 months or longer depending on the circumstances of displacement. Many of the Liberians now settling in Indianapolis cannot read or write, Smith said.
“I think [the government] could help them along more than [by just] giving them food stamps and putting them to work for a few hours somewhere just to pay the rent,” she said. The additional financial responsibility trickles down to the local African community, she said, and the public health and school systems.
Steve Crane, director of Exodus Refugee and Immigration, Inc., cautions people working with refugees to not become too paternalistic. The success of a refugee in resettling is ultimately their own responsibility. Refugees have a lot of dignity, he said, they’re survivors, having overcome serious adversity.
“They’re at a disadvantage not because they’re not capable people,” Crane said, “but because of circumstance.”