But refugees I met have not been aware of this policy. They think the $200 additional money is strictly their own and their suspicion that it is sometimes being diverted amounts to accusing their resettlement agency of being corrupt.
In a related way, the case of Talal Shaheen is hard to comprehend. After paying for the apartment he left behind in Turlock, the International Rescue Committee, he said, paid him $3500 for his first three months’ rent in El Cajon. Still, Shaheen feels that overall he got the short end of the stick.
“The problem,” I was told by a volunteer during a February 11 Resource Day gathering at the Family Welcome Center on East Main Street in El Cajon, “is that the resettlement agencies give refugees too little explanation of policy or actual benefits they might or might not qualify to receive. Of course, it doesn’t help that the agencies are overwhelmed by the recent flood of refugee arrivals.”
The Los Angeles Times, on February 18, stated that “nearly 800 Syrian refugees...arrived in San Diego County last year and settled in El Cajon.”
I could not look away
The purpose of the Resource Day gathering at the Family Welcome Center — attended by an estimated 30 to 40 people — was to remedy the scarcity of official communication. Informed volunteers, several having driven down from Los Angeles, sat at tables and answered questions about issues the resettlement agencies are supposed to help refugees navigate. These include how to find jobs, get legal advice, enroll themselves and their kids in schools, and find medical, disability, or mental health services. At one table I discovered there is a federal Medical Assistance Program for refugees. Hardly anyone else seemed to have heard of it.
The Resource Day was organized by Kristin Burke, a costume designer in the Hollywood movie industry who lives in Los Angeles. While working on a movie set in Atlanta, Burke read about Syrian refugees living there and became interested in their lives. She discovered that some of them were seamstresses or tailors. “After asking around, I learned it was legal to hire them. So that’s what I did,” she tells me. “I discovered they were very skilled and hard workers.”
An Empowering Refugees - Atlanta employee learned that Burke often visits her mother in San Diego County and asked if she would look into the conditions of refugees living in El Cajon after she got back to California. That launched her efforts to help locally. What she found was that, among refugees who had gotten apartments in El Cajon, many had little food and no furniture, bedding, cleaning devices, or kitchen utensils.
Burke found the living conditions of one family she met especially appalling. They had been sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished apartment for a month. That included an “80-year-old mom,” Burke told me. “I saw the conditions of other people who were existing in El Cajon, and when you contrasted those to what the refugees in Atlanta had, it was night and day. And I said, ‘Not in my backyard! I could not look away, as I realized I had the real capacity to help — I could motivate others to get involved.”
On October 16, 2016, Burke put a link on Facebook called “Second Families.” The page uses Amazon Lists to itemize numerous products the refugees need to start their new life. Once people purchase them online, said Burke, “all the items for Second Families peeps go directly to the family. No middleman.” Items such as chairs, sofas, beds, mops, clothing, blankets, pots and pans, and towels immediately began showing up on refugees’ doorsteps. In addition to the requests for needed items on the Facebook page, she has enlisted a cadre of volunteers from both San Diego and Los Angeles.
“We have over 1100 followers on Facebook,” said Burke. “As for donors, I don’t have the numbers. But if you figure that each family has 100 items on their list, and we had lists from 40 families, that is a lot of items. I have had feedback from all over the world, so I know people from many countries are buying items for these families. All of our donors are anonymous. I wish I could thank every one of them personally, but there is no way for us to know who they are.”
Blinded by torture
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement aims at assisting the “most vulnerable,” especially those who have been injured in war or tortured, have been subsisting in Middle Eastern camps on cash assistance, or have serious medical conditions.
Most recently Kristin Burke has been helping a few Syrian families who desperately need medical attention. Although the refugees are automatically enrolled by their resettlement agencies in Medi-Cal upon their arrival in California, they often cannot figure out how to make appointments with a doctor who takes it. But even by phone from Los Angeles, Burke can arrange local Medi-Cal appointments for refugees by virtue of them granting her status as their HIPAA representative. (The acronym stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal law protecting the privacy of patients’ medical information.)
In all, I met six male refugees, two of their wives, and some of their children. Five of the six families have at least one member with significant medical needs. Shaheen still needs medical attention for the gunshot wound to his abdomen; also a high blood-sugar problem. Blood sugar issues seem common in the community.
Several refugees talked about their medical issues but wanted to remain anonymous out of fears engendered by President Trump’s recent attempt to enact a travel ban against people from seven Middle Eastern countries. For them I have used other names Shaheen and Raphid Al Bawi suggested to me.
The second El Cajon apartment I visited in late January was occupied by Abu Ahmed, his wife, and five children. The furnishings here were very modest. The family had come from Daraa in Syria, a city at the center of the country’s civil war. In 2011, the Bashar al-Assad regime spread a wide net in Daraa to capture citizens who had rebel sympathies. Abu Ahmed was arrested and, for 45 days, was tortured with electric shocks applied to his temples, leaving him blind.