How To Make It As A Refugee In America

The story of refugees in America isn’t new and, in many ways, represents the classic American dream.

How To Make It As A Refugee In America
[Illustration: Made by Radio]

Despite the U.S. aiming to admit 85,000 refugees this year–the most accepted in more than a decade–the odds of getting in for any given refugee are extremely low. Each must pass a rigorous screening process (involving iris scans and in-person interviews) conducted by the UN and multiple U.S. government agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center and State Department. After arrival, life often gets better, but it’s a far cry from the increasingly distant comforts of “home.”


Manyang Reath Kher knows that reality all too well. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan, he wasn’t even old enough to walk when he was orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War. A kind woman, a stranger, scooped him up and carried him into the Pinyudo refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Kher lost everything and would spend his next 15 years in camps—after Pinyudo it was Dimma, then Donga—before finally getting the opportunity to escape to the United States in 2006. He now lives in Richmond, Virginia. “Coming to America, it’s like hitting the jackpot,” he says.

Despite the long odds and political controversies, America aims to increase refugee arrivals even more, to 100,000 people in 2017. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, if elected, says she would want to admit 65,000 Syrian refugees specifically, up from 10,000 this year.

Much has been made about the challenges this presents to cities and states that are absorbing refugees, from overloading health care systems to further stretching social services (along with handling consequences of xenophobia in angry public meetings and outright violence against American Muslims). But in reality, America has plenty of experience taking in people who have lost everything. The twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, for example, are home to more than 40,000 people of Hmong ethnicity—the first of whom escaped war in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos during the ’70s. Just as many African immigrants have settled in Chicago, including refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. And more than 100,000 refugees from Sudan, like Kher, can be found in L.A., Detroit, D.C., Omaha, and other cities across the country.

Kher went from running track in high school (to make friends) to running his own coffee business in Richmond today. Like so many of America’s immigrants, plenty of refugees like him have improved not only their lots in life while in the U.S., but also enriched the lives of their neighbors.


As the discussion of the refugee crisis has grown more heated, it has largely stopped considering the refugees once they cross our borders. After the argument about whether or not we can shelter them is settled (as it has been for the 85,000 refugees we’ll take this year), there’s been a lot less attention paid to what their life will be like when they arrive. As Kher’s story makes clear, they keep facing immense challenges, but there is hope–and many ways you can help them.

The race to find a job

Refugees are legal U.S. residents upon arrival, but not yet citizens–and need all the help they can get. Language is one barrier. Culture is another—the American love of privacy may be strange, for example, or the fact it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman to be a family’s breadwinner.

That’s why refugees are paired with resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) or World Relief, each of which operate in more than 25 U.S. cities. Agency case workers help families start over. They begin by greeting them at the airport, but then offering invaluable support: finding affordable housing, connecting families to health care systems, enrolling children in school, in addition to providing basic furnishings, food, clothing, computers, and more.

For refugees, the top priority will be financial independence, since no one survives on handouts in the U.S. Many tap the federal Cash and Medical Assistance program, which grants access to both under the direction of the U.S. Department of Health Human Services. The problem is that benefits expire after eight months and aren’t substantial anyway.

“Whether emergency cash assistance can even pay rent varies state to state, but in general it’s nothing you’d want to be living on,” says IRC senior director of program quality Ellen Beattie. In the state of Washington, for example, a family of two making no income receives $420 per month, with any earnings counted against the grant. The benefits are discontinued as soon as the pair makes more than $839 in a month.


In these eight months, there simply often isn’t time for an elaborate job search. If a refugee is offered or placed into a low-skill, low-wage “survival job,” they’ll often have to take it.

“Even if you ran a bus company back home, even if you had a business or went to college, you are probably going to be cleaning hotel rooms or working at a chicken processing plant,” says Blair Brettschneider, cofounder of GirlForward, a group that mentors teenage refugee girls. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s a start. The majority of refugees (with support from their caseworkers) secure earned income within their first six months in the U.S.

Climbing the ladder

Once refugees start cashing checks and building their resumes and networks, they often begin to look for next steps. In some cases, this is as simple as adding another wage earner to the mix, whether a spouse, adult relative, or a teenager working a part-time job. “That’s the definition of poverty: meeting immediate needs but forgoing longer-term opportunities,” says Brettschneider. “We have girls who are pressured to get work, and sometimes that’s just a necessity, but that’s what we’re trying to work against.”

The earlier resettled refugees have the opportunity for skills training, and take it, the more quickly they get out of survival jobs. “Not pursuing professional development—or being barred from it—can set a refugee back as much as 15 years in a career,” she notes.

Many refugees are encouraged by case workers to enroll in certification programs or vocational counseling. Beattie offered an example of a refugee who was working as a university janitor making $9.50 an hour. He knew how to drive, so the IRC nudged him to pursue a truck driving license.


“It was an easy, relatively low-cost, and short investment in time to get into something that could double wages,” Beattie said. “And after they’re better established, the key is not just earning money but also about financial literacy. Establishing a credit score is fundamental—it’s part of any background check done by employers.”

These short-term programs can be surprisingly affordable. In Virginia, for example, refugees can apply for a Workforce Credential Grant (WCG), which offsets the cost of selected certification courses, including teacher licensure and clinical medical assistant training. A standard commercial driver’s license costs $4,500, but with WCG, it’s $1,500. Resettlement agencies are often able to help provide different kinds of financial assistance.

Opportunities for integration everywhere

“My life has changed since I arrived in the United States. Here, my parents have a stable job to feed me and we have safe place to stay. In addition, I have more chance to achieve my dreams compared to [the] refugee camp in Thailand,” said Kay Wine, 16, a Burmese refugee living in Austin. “But my parents don’t speak English and don’t know how to drive.”

Not being able to drive in Texas might sound like a death sentence, but because Wine was referred to the GirlForward program in Austin by her family’s case worker, she’s been able to introduce her parents to other Burmese families in the city–like the Pway family, who have a teen daughter, Hser.

It turns out that children in refugee families aren’t just beneficiaries of long weeks put in by their parents. Because children and teens tend to pick up English faster than their parents and are regularly part of after-school and community events, they can actually be some of the best ambassadors for social bridging.


And all around the U.S., refugees have created additional opportunities for integration independent of their kids through arts and crafts and even small-scale agriculture, using food as a vehicle for connection and positive response at farmers’ markets, cooking exhibits, and urban farms.

The six-acre Ohio City Farm, managed by 33-year-old Burmese refugee Lar Doe, grows and sells fresh produce to residents and restaurants in Cleveland. In Sacramento, more than 1,000 refugees from eight countries are part of the New Roots program, which runs community gardens, farmer trainings, and nutrition workshops. And the meal delivery startup EatOffbeat hires “the most talented cooks among new arrivals,” then has them whip up delicious, authentic dishes for the crowd in New York City.

Getting involved or even pioneering faith-based traditions is another way to build social capital. There are plenty of avenues available for newcomers, which can open doors down the road. Fast-breaking iftar dinners during Ramadan are hosted all over the country, including charitable affairs hosted in New York by organizations like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Refugees are, of course, welcome.

When refugees can apply their skills, positive outcomes often result. A family might move into a better school district, where their kid is named valedictorian. It’s happened before (more than once). Or they could start their own business. That’s what recent University of Richmond graduate Manyang Reath Kher is up to today, running 734 Coffee, a social enterprise that sends 10% of proceeds to help Sudanese refugees on the other side of the Atlantic.

“We import coffee from Ethiopia and Sudan, and sell it online and at the RVA Wellness Cafe. And in churches,” Kher said. “People only resist things they don’t know, so we put a refugee story on the back of the coffee. And instead of hearing, ‘I don’t want these people to take my job,’ you can see their excitement. One hundred million people a day drink coffee in America.”


Kher said some of his coffee is actually grown on a small four-acre farm in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, the same region where you can find the Pinyudo refugee camp he grew up in. This fall, he hopes 734 Coffee will be on the shelves of a local Whole Foods.

“The refugee story is very much part of the American story in general. As a country of immigration, it’s constantly changing its ethnic, religious, and racial makeup,” Beattie said. “That’s who we are. We are a melting pot. We are that story of people who start over and renew and refresh and look forward. We’re those who are striving for ideals.”

Beattie is right. If America is the home of the brave, who better represents that than refugees who have resisted authoritarian forces, fought back against oppression, and taken on huge risks in hope of a better tomorrow?

Note: Here are just a few of the organizations that help support refugees entering the U.S. (besides the ones named above), if you want to find out more or give support: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), Mercy Corps, and Refugee Council USA.

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About the author

John Converse Townsend covers smart solutions to social problems, as a writer and social media producer for Fast Company. He likes: black coffee, Paul Pogba, and long runs