Some stories take a long time to report. StateImpact‘s recent piece on the refugee travel loan program is one example. I first spoke to Legal Aid attorney Zoe Ann Olson in February, not long after I reported a story about how Idaho’s economic downturn has affected refugee resettlement. Marcia Munden, the Catholic Charities social worker who was instrumental in that piece, recommended I give Olson a call.
A long phone conversation ensued. One of Olson’s main observations about the program was this: many refugees seemed not to know they could be eligible for loan deferrals or waivers based on criteria like economic hardship or disability. As a result, she said, the travel loans compounded refugees’ economic distress, and put them at risk for bad credit. The loans were, in effect, creating an additional barrier to integration in the U.S.
Why weren’t refugees effectively pursuing deferrals and waivers? Was it because the International Organization for Migration, which administers the loan program on behalf of the U.S. State Department, didn’t provide clear enough documentation? Was it because resettlement agencies, charged with collecting loan payments, didn’t have established ways of to keep refugees informed of the program’s ins and outs? Was it because many refugees don’t speak fluent English, and may not have understood their rights, or what they were signing in the first place, even if they had been informed? Was it some combination of the three?
Finally, how many refugees were experiencing serious problems as a result? What was the scale?
To answer those kinds of questions meant talking to a lot of people, many more than appeared in our broadcast story. The reporting was made tougher by the fact that the International Organization for Migration’s Brian Graham, who oversees the travel loan program, referred me to the State Department for comment. The only person the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration made available was a public relations officer, Deborah Sisbarro. While helpful in tracking down facts and figures, she wasn’t intimately familiar with the loan program. That left it to me to do a higher level of verification and cross-checking than might otherwise have been necessary.
There was also the challenge of finding a refugee family willing to to talk on tape about their experiences with the loan program. I heard from Olson and others that refugees feared reprisal for speaking out about the travel loans. I was told some feared their family members might be denied entry to the U.S. if they didn’t find a way to pay their loans. While I heard no justification for those fears, I could understand them, and their result. Why would anyone harboring such anxieties meet with a reporter? After weeks of phone calls, a translator put me in touch with Qusay Alani, an Iraqi refugee who arrived in the U.S. in 2009. He said to come on over.
Meanwhile, I consulted current and former resettlement agency employees. I met with a number of translators who frequently work with refugees here in Idaho and who consequently have a good grasp of the travel loan program’s effects on refugees’ integration process. I attended a weekly meeting of African refugees and asked open-ended question about the loan program of all in attendance. Many spoke up, reiterating the stories I’d heard from Iraqi refugees, and from a translator for Russian and Uzbek refugees.
This is all to say: the story of Qusay Alani and Israa Al Mashhadani can be understood as one of many. While few refugee families are as willing to repeatedly welcome a reporter (and her microphone) into their home, many families here in Idaho are in their position. Likewise, the travel loan program is one challenge among many that refugees face. The program’s problems are framed by larger trends: years of cutbacks in the amount of financial and medical assistance refugees receive upon arrival in the U.S. And, of course, the recession.