Refugee Children Struggle to Help Families Make Ends Meet

A profile of refugee children in today’s New York Times points out that they struggle not only to learn English, graduate from school, and fit into American communities — like Boise, Idaho — but also to make enough money to support themselves and their families.

Here is a very schematic overview of refugees’ lives prior to settling in one or another US town or city:

In Boise, Idaho, about 1,300 of the city’s 26,000 students last year were refugees, roughly a third of them in high school. The United States expects to resettle 85,000 refugees in 190 cities and towns nationwide this year. Like their American counterparts, Boise’s student refugees long to fit in, but they face enormous challenges. They arrive in the United States, along with immediate family members, after fleeing persecution in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda or other homelands that have been wracked by war, sectarian violence or ethnic cleansing. In most cases, these students have spent years, sometimes a decade or longer, in refugee camps or on the move in countries adjacent to their homelands, waiting for a chance at permanent resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency forwards suitable applications to potential host countries, which have the final say about who will be granted residency, an opportunity less than 1 percent of refugees worldwide receive. The security-clearance process in the United States usually takes 18 to 24 months.

According to the article, refugees receive initial support, but that support is withdrawn shortly after they settle. At that point, they and their families are on their own.

When these students land in Idaho, they may know little or no English. The bucolic landscape looks nothing like the America they say they fantasized about from glimpses of pop culture abroad. In this alien setting, young refugees may not want to assert their adolescent independence from parents or other relatives, who most likely represent teenagers’ only earthly ties to the world they formerly knew or people they once held dear. “Some struggle a lot — that comes with these traumatic experiences,” says Christian Lim, a school counselor who runs a program at Hillside Junior High and Borah High School in Boise for recent immigrants. “But the initial couple of months, there’s so much positive energy, just the euphoria to be here.”

Soon, however, a heavier reality sets in. Although refugees receive initial cash assistance and help finding a place to live, these benefits last only eight months. Lim says the subsequent transition for students can be difficult. “They start dealing with financial issues, the family losing their house, and suddenly kids are having to work after school until midnight or two in the morning,” he says.

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