By Jennifer Lloyd
December 21, 2009
As Iraqi refugee Haifaa Hassein stepped on a plane to travel to the United States with her four children, she felt as though she was venturing into the unknown.
When she disembarked at the San Antonio International Airport almost a year ago, she was welcomed by the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program. She and her children were taken to a prearranged apartment near the Medical Center. Her fears and concerns began to ease.
The refugee program is one of many area nonprofits the San Antonio Express-News is profiling in its annual Grace of Giving series, which runs daily until Christmas.
The program has been in existence nationwide since 1980, said Paula Walker, the local program's director. In the past two years, the local program grew from helping 600 refugees settle into new lives to more than 1,000. Refugees served come mainly from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Cuba, Iran and Iraq.
“These are our international homeless. These are persons who have been displaced and, literally, they feel like they've lost their identity. You're helping them to restart their lives, and America has always been leading the way with accepting the most immigrants and refugees. It puts a lot of spice in our country,” Walker said.
However, the boom in refugee relocation to San Antonio and Texas has caused a lag in how quickly refugees begin receiving food stamps and Medicaid benefits, Walker said.
The economic downturn also makes finding a job more challenging for refugees, many of whom, such as Hassein, have limited English skills. Hassein is looking for work while taking English as a Second Language classes through the program.
Refugees are expected to be self-sufficient within four to six months, Walker said. But because of the tough economy, the success rate for refugees' self-sufficiency has dropped from about 85 percent to around 50 percent.
“In years past, most did not have to depend on food stamps long-term when jobs were more available,” Walker said. “With the current economy, of course, refugees need assistance longer.”
Hassein, a quiet woman with a thankful attitude toward both the country she now calls home and the refugee program, used an interpreter to relay how she and her family fled from Iraq to Syria in 2007 after her two brothers and one of her sons were killed. Her son, Ahmed, was 8 when he died after stepping on an explosive device near their house in Baghdad, she said.
After Hassein's husband, Dhiya Mahmood, was sent back to Iraq from Syria, she had trouble finding a job and supporting her children in Syria. Eventually, she and her children, ranging in age from 3 to 14, were granted refugee status in the U.S., although her husband is still in Baghdad awaiting refugee status. In the meantime, the family chats on the phone or through a Web cam.
Though she misses her parents and husband greatly, Hassein said she loves being able to safely walk around her neighborhood with her kids. She said she also believes her children will receive a much better education in the U.S.