Reza Noori risked his life working as a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Now a refugee living in New Haven, he faces a different battle — one he said he fights with little help.
Noori is one of five Afghan refugees who claim that the local resettlement agency Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) has neglected to provide them with adequate support for finding employment and housing upon their arrival in New Haven. After they spent years providing crucial services for the U.S. military, the former translators said, the country is not doing the same for them.
They said that the organization provides refugees with substandard, unsafe housing; that they often approached IRIS employees for help and were ignored or treated coldly; and that IRIS focused on refugees’ immediate employment often to the detriment of their health and long-term potential.
Chris George, the agency’s director, responded that IRIS does a good job with limited funding and personnel, and that individual refugees have unrealistic expectations of their lives in a new country.
“A refugee center is supposed to be a public/private partnership. Also, in the minds of Congress, it’s supposed to be a bit of a struggle. Our job is make sure that it’s not too difficult,” he said. “Comments like, ‘Why was I brought to America to be a dishwasher?’ are not going to go over well in an American audience. The response will be: ‘Aren’t you grateful’?”
IRIS had planned to cap the number of refugees received at 200 this year, which is “blasphemy in the world of refugee resettlement,” George (pictured) said. Despite the plan, “we went over” to about 230 refugees, he said.
Noori, who is 25, said he began translating for the army in February 2010. He applied for a visa in September 2011. He arrived in New Haven on Nov. 26, 2013 — a more than two-year wait.
Noori knew no one in New Haven when he arrived that night in November. An employee from IRIS met him at Union Station and took him to his new apartment, rented in advance. He had his own room there.
He decided to leave after one night, since it was “not a good place,” he said. The doors had no locks. The toilet didn’t flush. The water was cold; so was the entire apartment, Noori said. His new roommates were Iraqi refugees. He would have preferred to stay with people from his own country to navigate the difficulties of this new one.
The next day, Noori went to IRIS’ office and met Javid Akbari, also from Afghanistan. He decided to live with him instead.
All five of the Afghan refugees who spoke to the Independent live in apartments in the same building on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard. Noori shares a one-bedroom with three other people; each of the four pays $187.50 per month.
The apartment is cramped and often lacks heat in the winter. The building’s elevator is broken.
Miles Of Red Tape
Fear of persecution drives refugees from their home countries and into refugee camps — often marking a long wait before they are invited to re-settle in another country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for determining an individual’s refugee status and ensuring they are adequately protected.
The U.S. invited about 70,000 refugees last year to resettle within its borders. The Department of State allocates those thousands to nine organizations across the country, which each distribute cases to about 30 or 40 small nonprofits—about 350 total, including IRIS. Refugees have some choice in the matter, if they know someone in a certain part of the country who can help make their resettlement easier; if not, they are assigned arbitrarily.
Located at 235 Nicoll St. in the East Rock neighborhood, IRIS was created in 1982 by the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. It has an independent board of directors. The two groups have been connected, up until next year, when IRIS will be “on our own,” George said.
Since 2009, Afghan nationals who were employed as translators or interpreters for the U.S. Armed Forces can apply for special immigrant visas (SIVs), since they often face persecution from insurgents for their involvement. Despite the immediate danger these translators face, the process of applying for a visa is long and difficult.
When they flee to the U.S., they encounter red tape. The National Defense Authorization Act for the upcoming fiscal year authorizes 4,000 visas to be issued to Afghan nationals; the multi-step application requires the submission of more than a dozen documents, a petition process, an interview and a lot of months of waiting.
Shallow Pool Fund
In a recent segment detailing the difficulties of the process, comedian John Oliver pointed out that even a donkey, sent from a military base in Iraq, went through less bureaucracy to come to the U.S. than the average Afghan human refugee does. It took the donkey eight months.
The U.S. government gives resettlement agencies $1,875 upon each refugee’s arrival — “welcome money.” The agency must spend a minimum of $925 on the individual refugee over the first one to three months, helping with rent payments and basic necessities. For particularly vulnerable clients, such as single mothers with children, George said IRIS puts $200 of the remaining $950 into a “pool fund” for “direct services.
The remaining $750-$950 per client goes toward keeping IRIS up and running, George said. “It pays for the case managers, for rent, for utilities.”
About 60 percent of the organization’s yearly 1.3 million comes from the federal government — including the refugees’ resettlement benefits — and 40 percent from grants. IRIS holds an annual fundraising event called “Run for Refugees,” which George said does not necessarily raise a lot of money but does raise awareness in the New Haven community.
That breakdown is not uncommon. Bridgeport’s resettlement agency International Institute of Connecticut (IICONN) brings in about $1.7 million in revenue, 54 percent from the government and 46 percent from grants and fundraising events. The organization works on resettlement out of its Bridgeport office and has different programs in offices in Hartford and Stamford.
IICONN also uses the welcome money to pay for rent and startup costs. They try to rely as much as possible on donations, said Bonnie Kern, the agency’s programs director. “We try to have as many strategic partnerships as possible, so we don’t have to use the money on household items…Without that, the client would have no money,” she said.
IRIS employs 11 people full time and 10 part time, including seven staff members in the case management department who assist refugees from the moment they arrive at the train station. George said he has ads up for two new employees, in employment services and case management.
A steady flow of volunteers bolsters the organization’s work: “We wouldn’t be able to do half the things we do without” them, George said.
At A Dead End
Tim Pham (pictured right with Noori) began volunteering with IRIS in October 2013 and was placed as a “cultural companion.” Through that position, he met Akbari and then Noori, and a number of others, many of whom expressed their dissatisfaction with the agency, and their new lives.
Pham started out as an English tutor. His role broadened as he became friends with the guys to entail “being there to ask, ‘What do you need? What can I do?’”
Getting a job is one of the most difficult tasks newcomers face, even if they speak English. Refugees said IRIS gave little to no direction on how or where to search. It took Noori seven months to find a full-time job.
He said he found a number on a sign advertising a job selling vacuum cleaners with the promise of commission. He said he asked someone at IRIS and was told to go forward with the interview and application process. However, after traveling to Shelton for an interview, training for three days, and attempting to sell vacuum cleaners for a week, he realized he was not going to get his $500 weekly.
Eventually, he found a job through a roommate at a craft butchery in Westport. He commutes daily by train.
George said he expects “a single, healthy young man who speaks English to get a job in three months.” He said he was not sure Noori “was willing to do any job in order to pay his rent, partly because of the culture he has come from. ... A lot of clients come from countries where certain jobs are considered beneath them.”
Noori’s neighbor Mohammad Fardeen Shahnan said he wants a job that pays the bills but also that gives him some chance of upward mobility. He waited two and a half years for SIV application approval, then another 14 months to arrive in the U.S. His family is under threat back in Afghanistan. “I fought with the U.S. forces shoulder by shoulder. I was hit by an IED, [improvised explosive device]; I faced a lot of ambushes. While we were in Afghanistan, we were promised a lot of things,” he said.
Shahnan, who is 29, was a manager in Afghanistan, working full-time and studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He was about to finish his third year of his degree before he came to the U.S. on Feb. 14, 2014. He had hoped to continue his studies at Gateway Community College, but it didn’t accept his credits, he said. He said his IRIS case manager discouraged him from studying until he found a job.
Now he earns about $800 monthly working part-time at Dunkin Donuts, with little chance of advancement. His bills exceed $1,000. He also receives about $600 per month from social services.
“With this job I’m working right now, I will never improve. That’s the hardest thing. That hurt me,” he said.
Shahnan said he wants to find a full-time job and has been sending his resume to hotels, supermarkets, and language centers. He said he sent emails to IRIS asking for help but hasn’t heard any response.
$65.98 For A Car Seat
Most critiques refugees had of IRIS revolved around poor communication and organization. The men who talked to the Independent said they rarely knew exactly where their money was going, where their paperwork was, or what local services they were qualified to use or receive.
For example, Akbari had health problems that landed him in the emergency room soon after he arrived in the United States. He said when he went to IRIS multiple times to ask them how to deal with bills that totaled more than $1,000, they told him to ignore it. He got a final notice from the hospital in December and made his first payment of $50 on Dec. 11 — realizing too late that he qualified to apply for free care.
Abdul Samad, who is 32, said IRIS mismanaged the use of his family’s welcome money, in part by charging him for items he did not need or request.
For example, according to the receipt, IRIS charged $65.98 to his account in September for a booster and car seat from Amazon.com — but Samad does not have a car and cannot afford one. The two boxes sit unopened in a corner of his bedroom.
George said he has to charge refugees for car seats so volunteers can take the children to doctor’s appointments. “I hate to do it, but we have to.” He said he gets a lot of complaints from this about refugees, many of who have misconceptions about the resettlement benefits, based on what they were told overseas. “It’s stressful for my staff to be constantly accused of withholding money or spending it without permission or on things they don’t want.”
He said he dissects the entire process in a mandatory six-part cultural orientation program when refugees first arrive.
“Our communication can always be better. We can have better interpretation,” he said.
Noori showed the Independent a letter his friend received from IRIS notifying her that “IRIS has decided to stop providing services to [her] and [her] family, effective immediately.”
The letter said she had “time and again … chosen not to comply with our expectations and recommendations, most importantly regarding your financial responsibilities,” including failures to work full-time, look for affordable child care, pay rent, stick to a reasonable budget or acknowledge damage done to the apartment.
“IRIS cannot accept this behavior any longer. We are prepared to discuss once you have paid your back rent” of more than $1,000, the letter ends, above George’s signature.
The recipient is a single mother with two children, in the U.S. for more than 90 days; she does not speak English. Noori had to translate the letter for her, from English to Persian. She paid the back rent and met with IRIS staff but is still being shut out. She declined to have her full story in the Independent; she said she fears never being able to get help from the agency again.
George claimed IRIS had not recently severed ties with any refugees. He said that in “extreme” cases, they have just “sent a number of letters to people saying, ‘If you don’t pay your rent and stick with jobs that are perfectly good, we will not be able to maintain the services.’” He said that in all these cases, at least in recent history, the problems have been resolved.
“We said, ‘O.K., fine. We will not cut services,’” George said. “I don’t like to call it a threat. It’s just saying the reality: if they’re not going to get with it, there’s only so much we can do.”
Samad (pictured) is considering going back to Afghanistan, although he faces the risk of being targeted and killed. “I don’t care about the danger,” he said. “If I die, my family can treat themselves in a good way in their own house.”
He said he was promised dental care after he “lost [his] teeth in an ambush,” but hasn’t found it to be true.
Ahmad — who declined to use his last name, fearing retaliation on his family in Afghanistan — flipped through photos of himself sitting at his office desk working a former managerial position back home. He and the others reminisced about their past lives. They are targets because of their association with the U.S. military; otherwise, they would be back in Afghanistan in a heartbeat. They miss their families.
George said he understands that the transition is difficult. He said he would like to be able to help people like Noori and Shahnan complete their educations. But he said the government cannot support them “100 percent.”
“Part of me is grateful that we have clients who complain. It reminds me that they are in a country where ... they can criticize a government program openly. They’re exercising a basic human right,” George said. “Even if they’re not valid, it does make me think of ways to improve.”
Thanks to a “generous” church donation last summer, IRIS is now able to give its clients Tempur Pedic mattresses without cost, he said. In the past, refugees suffered bedbug infestations from donated mattresses.
But the refugees said that they think IRIS can do better, and that they deserve more. Standing in his new apartment, in a country where he is unable to make a decent living cleaning hotel rooms, Samad raised his voice in frustration.
“The U.S. Army told us that we are going to heaven, but this is hell,” he said. “This is not heaven.”