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The business of resettling refugees

Caitlin Esch Nov 9, 2015
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October kicked off the new fiscal year for refugee settlement in the United States. This year, the U.S. has increased the number of refugee visas from 70,000 to 85,000. 

The government spends more than $1 billion a year resettling refugees. It’s a complicated process that can take years. On a recent weekday afternoon, Arpeneh Chobanian climbed into a rental car and set the GPS for Los Angeles International Airport. She was going to greet a young refugee couple; newlyweds from Iraq.

Chobanian is a case manager with the International Institute of Los Angeles, a local partner of a national resettlement agency that contracts with the State Department.

Chobanian knows what the newcomers are going through. She arrived in Los Angeles as a refugee herself eight years ago.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “Like you are living in fear for unknown future.”

Chobanian is also from Iraq. In 2004, she fled the war and moved to Syria with her three daughters. The family waited four years to get refugee status. When the time finally came, Chobanian packed a few small suitcases and donated the rest of her belongings to an orphanage.

“At the last moment, when I stepped in the airplane, I feel that I am safe,” she said. “When I saw the American flag. Ah, it was so, oh, I can’t imagine.”

Case managers like Chobanian are the first faces refugees see when they arrive in the U.S. They help refugees apply for public assistance, open bank accounts and look for jobs. Seemingly small tasks that make a crucial difference, according to Chobanian’s boss, IILA Director Lilian Alba.

“Some of the families, they don’t even know how to shop, they don’t know about supermarkets, they need to be introduced to foods they’ve never seen. So having that basic foundation to them is critical,” Alba said.

The State Department pays resettlement agencies like Alba’s $2,025 per refugee. About half of that goes toward the agency’s administrative costs. The rest goes directly to the refugees.

In addition, there are interest-free loans that refugees get to travel to the U.S., which they start paying back after 6 months.

Last year, Alba’s case managers helped 460 refugees settle around Los Angeles. This year, she anticipates more.

Back at the airport, Chobanian holds a sign with the names of the Iraqi couple. When they finally emerge, she greets husband and wife in Arabic with a huge smile. Tomorrow, after they get over their jet lag, Chobanian will visit them and share practical advice, like how to enroll in health insurance and use the bus system.

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