In the last few years, more than 4,000 refugees have found their way to Idaho. They’ve come from Africa, and from East and South Asia. Most came to Boise. For years, the city’s strong economy, good quality affordable housing and supportive community created an especially favorable environment for refugee resettlement. Now, the recession has shifted that picture.
Most days, Nowela Virginie and her two young daughters are here, in her small apartment just off a busy thoroughfare on the outskirts of Boise.
Virginie is 23, and she arrived in Boise three years ago. She was born in Rwanda, but spent sixteen years of her life in a refugee camp in Tanzania. She remembers the shock of finding herself in a new city, a place that looked nothing like anywhere she’d ever been. “When I coming USA, nobody can explain to me how USA is to look like, nobody can explain to me,” she says.
Virginie says even the buildings didn’t make sense to her. What were they? Was that a house, or a business? “Because you don’t know this is, like, hotel, or this is like company, let me go looking job,” she says. “Before I was so scared.”
She mentions looking for a job, and right now, that’s her most basic hope: to find work. But as Virginie herself knows too well, that’s a huge challenge. “You know, new country is supposed to be hard,” she says. “New language, everything is new. But if you have a job, you have education, is not hard, is good. But the bad thing, if you don’t speak any English, is so hard – really hard.”
All of that is compounded by an economic downturn that has eliminated many of the entry-level positions that might have been possibilities for Virginie not so long ago. Marcia Munden is a social worker with Catholic Charities of Idaho. She says Virginie is one of many refugees living in Boise who have found themselves stuck. “Three years ago we were just seeing a few extreme cases of refugees that had consistent difficulty with integration,” she says. “And then it really happened very suddenly where there were 50, 60, 100 families really struggling.”
Munden and Virginie met two years ago, when Virginie came to Munden’s office with an eviction notice. By then, the eight months of medical and financial assistance Virginie received as a refugee arriving in the U.S. had expired. She managed to find work cleaning rooms at a Boise hotel, but that didn’t last. Her hours depended on the number of rooms to be cleaned, and usually there weren’t many. Plus, there was the problem of daycare for her children. “She would have to get them over there, pay for the time that the daycare requires that you pay for, and then show up to work and possibly only work a partial shift,” Munden says. The daycare bill was sometimes hundreds of dollars more than her paycheck. Eventually, Virginie had to quit.
The recession has complicated the hard task of refugee resettlement nationwide. But the shift is especially stark in Boise, because this city has long been regarded as a good place for refugees to put down new roots. That’s according to Bob Carey, Vice President of Resettlement and Migration Policy for the International Rescue Committee. “Boise was particularly favorable, yes,” he says.
The IRC opened an office in Boise in 2006. At that time, Idaho had the fastest growing economy in the country, and unemployment in the Boise area was under three percent. The economy wasn’t the only factor the IRC considered, but it was a plus. “It was a very strong employment market, and there were certainly many jobs available for refugees at the entry level when they arrived in Boise,” Carey says. “So for those people who were able to work, we could generally find them jobs that would allow them to support themselves within 90 days.”
Now, Boise is one of the places where the IRC has reduced the number of refugees it aims to resettle each year, cutting back by about a third. In addition, they and other local agencies that help refugees find work have adopted new strategies. Jan Reeves heads the Idaho Office for Refugees. “We’ve looked at other ways of opening doors that we’ve never had to look at before,” he says.
For example, Reeves says, they’ve looked farther afield, finding jobs for a number of refugees at a dairy in Boardman, Ore. The efforts appear to be paying off. Before the recession, in 2005, 95 percent of the office’s employable caseload found work. That dropped to 55 percent in 2009. It has since gone back up to more than 70 percent. Reeves says, yes, there are refugees who are not making it, but it’s important to think about what the resettlement program offers, and what it doesn’t. “The refugee resettlement program provides an opportunity for people to achieve a level of protection from violence and torture and other forms of persecution,” he says. “But the system in our country does not provide a guarantee that everybody will be well taken care of.” That, he says, is an unfortunate reality.
Despite the clear difficulty of Nowela Virginie’s situation, there’s room for hope. Virginie and her daughters have been lucky to get subsidized housing, at a moment when waiting lists are either closed or very long. And Virginie recognizes that her children already have opportunities she never did. “You know, I’m so happy because my daughter, my big daughter, Odille, she speak English now,” she says. “Yeah, she in the kindergarten, but she speak really good English. I really happy about that.”
Her daughter, Odille, who is five, and has been quiet so far, gives a smile. “My teacher said we’re almost first graders,” she says.
She offers to sing a song, and launches in. “I’m bringing home my baby bumblebee…” she begins. It’s a familiar one to most any American kid, and she sings it the whole way through.