On an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean, Talal Shaheen, his wife and three sons, who are Syrian refugees, looked forward to a new life in Florida. Shaheen says that American government officials had told him he was going to Miami, because he had relatives there. The statement squares with a U.S. State Department spokesperson’s comment as quoted in the November 20, 2015, issue of U.S. News & World Report: “The most common reason for a refugee to be assigned to a particular place is a personal or family connection. We try very hard to get refugees close to people that they know because we think that they have a better chance of success if they have a support network when they first arrive, aside from just the volunteers.”
Shaheen was shocked upon landing in Miami when officials told the family to stay on the plane. They were continuing on to California instead.
When they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, there was a van and driver from the International Rescue Committee waiting to pick them up. Since no one in the family understood English, they were able to learn nothing of where they were going. A 12-hour drive later, they arrived. But where?
The International Rescue Committee is one of the busiest nongovernmental resettlement agencies nationally. It acts in conjunction with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to assist Syrian refugees to start over in the United States. For Shaheen and his family, the committee had already located an apartment in the mystery location and gave him money to pay the first month’s rent and basic furnishings.
Right away Shaheen experienced the town he was in to be “an empty place” whose small-town Americana culture made his family feel out of place and without job prospects. He would learn later that the town was Turlock, almost 90 miles southeast of Sacramento and one of California’s locations for resettling Syrian refugees. Turlock is the home of California State University Stanislaus.
Shaheen wanted to know who it was who had changed his family’s Miami destination.
At the International Rescue Committee offices days after his family’s arrival in Turlock, he met several Iraqi men. Speaking in Arabic, they recommended that he consider moving to the San Diego area. It turned out, Shaheen’s wife reminded him, that she had relatives in El Cajon, next to San Diego. That was all he needed to hear. Soon he had the International Rescue Committee convinced to help him relocate his family. The agency agreed to buy Greyhound bus tickets for each of his family members and sent them on their way. But he could not reclaim the first month’s rent for his Turlock apartment, and he would have to abandon furniture he’d already bought to put in it.
The El Cajon International Rescue Committee office had closed on a Friday night by the time the Greyhound bus arrived in town. So Shaheen and his three sons slept in the park downtown over the first weekend, and his wife’s relatives came to take her to their home. Afterward, the family spent eight days in a hotel before the committee found them an apartment.
Like other refugees I spoke to, Shaheen has hopes that Syria eventually recovers from its current civil war. “It is a beautiful country,” he said, “and I would definitely go back if it returns to normal.”
It was in late January that I met Shaheen. He’s a man of 50 with a short, neatly trimmed, gray beard. We sat in the apartment of Iraqi refugee Rafid Al Bawi, who had previously worked for the American government as a humanitarian aide in Baghdad. Acting now as our translator, Al Bawi was trying to give me a sense of how grueling it had been for Shaheen and his family as they lived in a Jordanian refugee camp for two years while undergoing the detailed immigration vetting process all seekers of asylum in the U.S. go through. On January 21, the New York Times listed 20 separate background checks and orientations refugees must undergo before been granted the asylum.
As if to say, “Don’t forget this,” Shaheen suddenly stands and pulls up his shirt to display a long abdominal scar where he had been shot in the crossfire between Syrian Army forces and the country’s rebels in his hometown of Homs. He points to places on his arms and legs where other bullets had wounded him.
In the wake of the Turlock episode, Shaheen was now suspicious that the local International Rescue Committee had siphoned off his welcome cash and applied it to his rent. By “welcome cash,” both Shaheen and Al Bawi meant a $200 sum refugees receive from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement beyond what it pays for their first month’s rent. Their understanding was that welcome cash is intended to cover apartment furnishings and other items to help families begin a livable new life. Other refugees I would later meet had suspicions similar to Shaheen’s about what happened to their welcome cash.
The International Rescue Committee has not responded to two voicemail messages I’ve left to learn its understanding of welcome cash. Jimmy Dervishi, director of the Alliance for African Assistance, another resettlement organization in San Diego County, was quick to return my call. After not fully grasping what he told me, I emailed him to get the policy in writing. By return email, he gave me a somewhat ambiguous view that, using much of his language, I believe is best interpreted in the following way.
A sum of $925, wrote Dervishi, “must be spent for each refugee client on items such as housing [first month’s apartment rent], food, furniture, supplies, and other necessary resettlement items and supplies.” But the $200, which Dervishi calls “flex money,” not “welcome cash,” is not a guaranteed payment to each client. It is flexible in two senses. First, the resettlement agency is permitted to transfer it to another “vulnerable family” that, for example, may be “experiencing an emergency medical or dental problem” or other dire situation. Second, a client’s flex money, at the resettlement agency’s discretion, may be put into a “pooling fund,” again for sudden needs any refugee may experience, such as wheelchairs or utility deposits.