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Mobtown Beat

Land of Confusion

Iraqi Refugee Family Was Assisted by Lutheran Social Services, Not International Rescue Committee

The City Paper Digi-Cam™
Fikremariam Worku (center), program manager for the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore, with Sidaliali (left) and Phuasanlian (Right), refugees he helped resettle.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/19/2008

A local "restructuring" of a refugee-resettlement contractor, plus a seasonal influx of refugees, may have contributed to the troubles Iraqi refugees have recently complained about in Baltimore. Their case managers have also faced longer processes for getting them things such as food stamps and I.D. cards, aid workers say.

On Nov. 5 City Paper published a story about the complaints of 15 Iraqi families, focusing on the plight of a Baghdad ophthalmologist who escaped with his family to Turkey last year amid terrorist attacks ("Insane Asylum," Mobtown Beat, Nov. 5). Members of that family (who asked not to be identified by name) said that since arriving in Baltimore in August, the family had no money, no work, faced high utility bills, and were frustrated that their young son had to wait until February to see a doctor about a limp he developed after breaking two vertebrae in a car crash.

The family is a client of Lutheran Social Services (LSS), not the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as was originally reported in the story.

But that apparently was not clear to the ophthalmologist, and in the Baltimore Resettlement Center, diagonally across Eastern Avenue from the new anchor library in Highlandtown, it's easy to see why. "Jacob"--the Lutheran Social Services case manager about whom the ophthalmologist and his family complained--"used to sit upstairs right in the middle of our case managers," says Lisa Yeager, finance manager for the IRC's Baltimore office and acting director since her boss moved on last month.

The IRC and LSS are two of the big 10 refugee-resettlement contractors that provides resettlement services in the United States. Each week the contractors work cooperatively to assign new arrivals to resettlement offices in every state. In the Baltimore Resettlement Office there is no clear demarcation between the two nonprofit companies.

But aid workers say the difference is crucial to them, because they must answer to the U.S. State Department for any bad press.

Jacob is not available when a reporter arrives, and his manager says he cannot grant an interview, deferring questions to Melissa Graves, executive director of the National Capital Area Lutheran Social Services.

The IRC people are eager to talk, however. Three of them--Yeager, program manager Fikremariam Worku, and Claudia Connor, national director for resettlement, who is in town from New York--patiently answer questions about the resettlement process for more than an hour.

They confirm that Iraqis with professional backgrounds are often disappointed by the resettlement process, and that overseas agencies not affiliated with the IRC can leave them with an inflated impression of the services that will be provided once they reach the United States. They say that the IRC provides every refugee family with at least four months of rent, plus help with utility payments, food stamps, comprehensive job training, and other services. The ophthalmologist feared last month that his family would be evicted from their apartment, but his landlord confirms that his rent is current through this month.

Yeager and Worku say everyone in the resettlement center--IRC and LSS alike--is dedicated to helping every refugee. But recent changes in the way Social Security cards, work permits, and food stamps have been issued have hampered efforts by case managers. "We used to get it right away. It was a very efficient system," Worku says, speaking of food stamps. But last year the city changed its procedure, and now, he says, "we have no choice but to go out and buy the food" for the first several weeks after a refugee's arrival, which puts financial pressure on the IRC.

Connor says there is also a rhythm to refugee work. In the winter, spring, and early summer there are relatively few new arrivals, but beginning in July, there is an influx that taxes those working in the resettlement center. The arrival in August and early September of 15 Iraqi families was part of this annual rush. And while more people were coming, the LSS was having trouble. "Their resettlement services are suspended as of August," Yeager says.

Susan Gundlach, director for community integration for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, says a "monitoring" of its Baltimore office found problems with the way services were being delivered. "There wasn't anything glaring," Gundlach says, but the findings led to a "restriction" on refugee resettlement beginning Aug. 1. The ophthalmologist and his family arrived on Aug. 8. They were resettled by the case workers in this office, Gundlach says, because they were assigned to LSS before the restriction was imposed.

In a Nov. 12 telephone interview, LSS National Capital Area executive director Melissa Graves, who oversees the Baltimore office, says she is familiar with the ophthalmologist's case. She insists that everyone gets a bus pass and instruction on how to use it. She says that the family's six-year-old son has already had six doctors' appointments. "Our staff took him each time," she says. "So the February appointment will be his seventh."

Graves says the monitoring has prompted the Baltimore office to strive for improvement. "We're looking at our policies and procedures on training," she says. She sounds reluctant to contradict a refugee in her agency's care, but compelled to defend her employees.

She calls back the next day, however, to correct herself.

While it is true that the ophthalmologist's son has had "several visits" to medical clinics, she says, he has not as yet seen a specialist for what appears to be his neurological injury. The February referral is to the Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins. "Our client is correct in being very frustrated," she says. "My staff has been frustrated, too."

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