What type of financial assistance are refugees entitled to?

Benjamin Akol entered the United States when he was 19 years old. Since the age of six he had been displaced by the northern Sudanese militia that pillaged his village and many other villages in southern Sudan.

Akol lived in several refugee camps near the country’s borders and in Kakuma, Kenya. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided the support for these camps but struggled to feed, clothe and house the thousands of refugees who needed assistance. Food, clothes and shelter were “luxuries,” according to Akol.

Thus, he jumped at the chance to resettle in the United States when the opportunity presented itself. That opportunity came, but so did the challenges of living in a new country. Akol was unaware of complexities that came with obtaining the luxuries he desired in Sudan and Kenya that in the U.S. were the basic staples of daily life.

Sponsorship – Before refugees enter the United States, they are given assistance upon arrival by the agency(ies) that sponsored them. Resettlement agencies work with the U.S. Department of State to determine how much money a sponsor is given to support newly arrived refugees in their first 30 days in the United States. “This amount is based on what the resettlement agency can afford to give and what the Department of State deems to be appropriate,“ adds Dr. Silverman of the Chicago branch for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Often refugees are put in modest homes or apartments with a variety of people placed in the same housing unit.  Akol recalls spending his first 90 days in the basement of his sponsor’s house in Mundelein, a suburb of Chicago.

“It was very boring,” he says. “We stayed in the house all day and only came outside to play soccer.” Refugees are expected to obtain a job as soon as possible to repay (within 42 months) an interest-free loan that was awarded to them for their travel to the United States. Dr. Silverman confirms that most refugees do indeed pay this debt “more or less” within the 42-month time frame.

Health Benefits – Refugees, like American citizens, must meet certain income guidelines to be eligible for Medicaid, a state and federally funded health insurance program. If refugees do not meet the guidelines, they are eligible for Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA) and Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA) during their first eight months in the United States through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Welfare (Food, Housing and General Living Expenses) – Refugees must meet the requirements to be eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a federally funded program via block grants that gives states discretion in how the money is distributed. If refugees meet the requirements of the program, they are entitled to TANF benefits for their first five years in the United States. Refugees can also receive food stamp benefits, a federally funded program that provides monthly stipends for low-income families to purchase food.

Some states may have work requirements for both TANF and food stamp benefits, which is why refugees are urged to secure a job as soon as possible.

Akol received help from World Relief in Chicago to help him navigate the assistance he was entitled to and to “teach” him how to live in the United States. “They [World Relief] took me to find jobs and an apartment,” Akol relates. ” I also had to learn how to buy and cook my own food and balance money.”

Akol currently works as a soccer coach and as a seasonal worker for the Chicago Park District. As a recent graduate of Northern Illinois University, he has big plans for his future in the United States.

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