Refugees Struggle for Better Life in Memphis

Memphis, TN – Memphis is a refugee resettlement site and has been since the end of the Vietnamese conflict in 1975. Refugees from all over the world are brought here every year. Hundreds of individuals looking for a better life, the first step, knowing the English language. Here more than 20 individuals sit in a classroom to learn the basics. Some have attended for months, for others this is their first or second visit. Before I leave the class a middle aged man from Haiti calls out to me.

"Help me to find job"

Walner has been in Memphis more than six months. That is the guaranteed allotment for refugee government support. He tells me that in Haiti he was a social worker. His area of study was spousal abuse. But here he says his knowledge is useless.

"I don't know the way right, I don't the way. I try to find job, I don't have any job. I'm looking, I'm looking, I'm looking."

Walner's English is okay. It is better than his peers in the ESL class, but still not good enough. The English language is not the only thing holding the refugees back from adapting. A refugee is a person who has been forced from their home and crossed an international border for safety. Many of them have just come from refugee camps, where they have lived for years. No taxes are paid, bills do not exist and many times food is proportioned and provided to the refugees in lines. Leaving many dependent on others rather than themselves. Carolyn Tisdale Director of Catholic Charities in Memphis says a refugee cannot survive here without learning the language and culture.

"For instance we have Somalis that will out migrate to Minnesota, where there is a large Somalian population. They can live in that culture without ever learning English. They can do business, they can get all of their needs met. In Memphis, If you had stayed in Memphis, trust me you would know how to speak English and you would have adjusted your status, because that is the nature of this city. So, it may be difficult, but it is better in the long run."

Non profits and other organizations have been criticized for not meeting the needs of the refugees, for example providing poor housing in dangerous neighborhoods. Tisdale says she is given $425 per refugee for six months. That money is expected to feed the refugee, provide housing, furniture, clothing, medical and social assistance. For every one dollar received from the government Catholic Charities attempts to match that amount by two dollars, which is dependent on how much the community is willing to donate. This is why the organization stresses self sufficiency of the refugee by 180 days. But the economy is poor and the jobs many of these individuals are capable of holding are scarce. The skill level is similar to what many Hispanic immigrants look for in work, and Latino Memphis reports that many have left due to lack of employment.

Dave Lucchesi, is the employment councilor at Catholic Charities, he says three years ago what would take one month to find a refugee a job is not taking three months or more.

"Our availability is directly related to the economy."

Kamel Al-Abes translates for his mother Ghaiba something you don't hear often, "praise Bush." Ghaiba's two sons were pulled out school and killed in front of their peers by the Saddam Hussein Regime in Iraq. Later Ghaiba's husband killed himself as well because he couldn't take the pain of the loss. Ghaiba and her two sons arrived in the U.S. in 1995 after spending four years in a refugee camp. Ghaiba's two sons, Kamel and Rahif were pushed by their mother to get educated and become self sufficient as soon as possible. Rahif says independence is more difficult in this economy for new refugee arrivals.

"They came up here at the wrong time, I think. They expect the Catholic Church to support them longer than they are able to. But we always tell them, take any job you can find, in the beginning then you will find your specialty."

Kamel and Rahif started moving furniture to make money. Today they have their own business, sell real estate and hold college degrees. They say it is possible for the others as well but they must first learn to rely on themselves.