[Read the full profile at Qusay Al Salih: Three times a refugee]

When Qusay Al Salih landed at O’Hare International Airport in March 2010, he was both excited to be reunited with his family and relieved to be out of Al-Waleed, the Palestinian refugee camp that had dominated the prior four years of his life. But immediately after arriving in Chicago, Al Salih found he had another challenge to overcome: supporting himself and his family financially.

As Al Salih would soon come to know, many of the nearly 80,000 refugees accepted annually for resettlement in the United States start the process in debt. Some of the most important aid doesn’t come from the U.S. government, but from the various volunteer organizations who step in to supply refugees with both financial and psychological support.

Where the money comes from

Volunteer agencies “arrange for food, housing, clothing, employment, counseling, medical care, and other necessary services,” according to the website for Refugee Council USA, a nongovernmental coalition of refugee aid organizations.

These organizations get reimbursed for at least $1,800 per refugee by the federal government. A portion of that money goes to funding the agency’s operational costs, from refugee housing to workers’ salaries. In the end, the amount of money each refugee actually receives in addition to Medicaid benefits and food stamps varies, but must be at least $900.

How much additional financial support a refugee family obtains often depends on its composition and the members’ ability to work, as well as the family’s total income. The numbers also vary by state; Illinois’ average is $400-$500 a month for up to eight months, but different governments and organizations provide varying allowances.

Supporting yourself

Most refugees, including Al Salih, begin the job search immediately; the sooner they find work, they reason, the more aid they will receive. But Deborah Hlavna, co-director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, stresses that even the support working refugees get from the government may not be enough to cover their basic costs.

“It really isn’t very much money,” Hlavna says. “No matter where in the U.S. you are, it’s hard to find a $400 rent.”

While the goal for most refugees is to become financially independent, most find it is a long and difficult road. Al-Salih, who began work as a delivery driver almost immediately after arriving, agrees with Hlavna, saying that his biggest stress in the U.S. comes specifically from his struggle to pay the bills by the end of the month.

RefugeeOne, the Chicago-based refugee resettlement agency that has worked with Al Salih since his arrival in the U.S., estimates that it takes between $5,000-8,000 to help a refugee become self-sufficient in the first three months. But this is a baseline number, not even covering the expenses that come with household set-up (such as furniture, bed and grocery). So many agencies also count on the contribution of private donors to meet their goals.

“The funds that refugee resettlement agencies get from the federal government is simply not enough,” says Greg Wangerin, executive director of RefugeeOne. “We need to find additional sources of money to welcome refugees with dignity to enable them to get started in a new life.”

Building a relationship

How well refugees adapt to their new home is often also dependent on whether their welcoming agency is able to find a U.S. co-sponsor. In most cases, both the agency and the sponsor meets the refugee at the airport and gives them initial support, Hlavna says.

The U.S. Department of State partners with 10 domestic resettlement agencies and their more than 350 affiliates scattered throughout the country to establish sponsorship programs and make sure all refugees are provided basic support.

Though the majority of a volunteer organization’s contribution to refugee resettlement comes through financial aid or language services, the relationship between a refugee and the organization that sponsors him often runs much deeper.

Nemeh Khatib, a case manager for RefugeeOne, says that families become very attached to case workers, which can be difficult when workers are balancing several cases at once.

“It’s an honor for me,” Khatib says. “I work for them, I like to help them. I feel they are my family now…I’m doing my best to adjust to help them feel safe, and I will help as much as I can.“
Eventually, though, the refugee must become independent, financially and otherwise.

Hopeful, but confident

With the Refugee Resettlement Act reaching its 30th anniversary this year, many who work with refugees are clamoring for an update. Critics say the legislation was based on a completely different international context, one that isn’t set up to handle the number of refugees who need to relocate to the United States from places like the Middle East.

Al Salih hopes that he and his fellow refugees will get the attention of the President with a trip to Washington, D.C. sometime in the next year. He is organizing the trip as a way to demand the attention that he feels isn’t being given to the people who deserve it.

But despite the financial troubles he has encountered, Al Salih says his life in the United States is better than anything he could have dreamed of in the refugee camp.

“We made sacrifices in the camps,” he says. “We lived with nothing. We have nothing to be worried about.”