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Former Jesuit Volunteer Continues Work with Refugees

By Pamela Larson

I sat around a coffee table with Najwa while sipping on Arabic coffee, thick with notes of cardamom and lightly sweet.  Najwa speaks easily about the needs of her Syrian refugee family, who is three years into living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She speaks about their decision to move from San Francisco’s Tenderloin district – often described as an open air drug market – to a safer suburb in the East Bay.   As an intern with the International Rescue Commission in Oakland, California, I developed and subsequently administered needs assessments with Syrian asylum seekers.

My time as a case manager for asylum seekers in Texas as a Jesuit Volunteer rapidly familiarized me with resources that newcomers to a country need and with the folds of bureaucracy that at times slow their success.

Najwa’s family had been granted asylum. This required them to prove life-threatening persecution in a process that often spans multiple years. As asylees, they are eligible for some of the same limited cash and medical assistance that refugees are provided. Yet, unlike refugees whose resettlement is assisted by an agency and case managers, asylees may not be as aware of potential assistance in their community.

Her facial expressions remained neutral as she matter-of-factly discussed the vulnerabilities of her family. Their expenses exceed their income. The new location of their home makes accessing English classes improbable. To observe the hijab makes her stand out in her community, and she has faced persecution, such as being told to remove her hijab in order to purchase items from a nearby store. My role was to listen and record the family’s responses to help inform IRC activities. Yet as a former case manager for asylum seekers, I was also able to offer resource recommendations and actively listen to my client’s life story.


My time as a case manager for asylum seekers in Texas as a Jesuit Volunteer rapidly familiarized me with resources that newcomers to a country need and with the folds of bureaucracy that at times slow their success. For example, many well paid jobs demand expensive training or certification.  Housing can require exorbitant security deposits, co-signers and a rental history; and a reliance on less-than-effective public transportation could mean losing a job or not arriving in time for an appointment at a social service agency.

In JVC, I worked to increase resources available to the shelter’s residents at my placement site. For example, starting a bicycle share to halve commute times. Another instance was supporting partnerships with local farms to improve residents’ nutrition.

I helped asylum seekers navigate legal, psychological, educational and linguistic resources. Yet I knew many of these programs were limited. And this meant, I could only meet a fraction of the needs of those I assisted. Those I did assist, were a fraction of a much larger refugee and asylee population in the community.

The expression “charity gives, but justice saves” continues to direct my work.

Today, there are more than 22.5 million refugees who have fled conflict to other countries across the world. A small minority among these (less than 0.5% annually) are resettling to countries such as the United States. I have met individuals who spent 17 years in a camp before resettlement to a third country. It is only then that they have the ability to legally work for a living, safely reside outside of a camp and can enroll their children in local schools, and be protected by local laws.

In the United States, refugees receive initial help. A resettlement organization welcomes them at the airport. The organization will help enroll children in schools. Additionally, they will help adults find employment. Yet refugees are expected to be self-sufficient in under half a year. Resettlement organizations receive $1,125 per person to help pay for rent, some basic furnishings of a home, and provide pocket money during the first months that refugees arrive to the country. Pooled among members of family, this amount that can provide several months of rent in the rustbelt. On the other hand, it might not even pay for one month’s rent in a shared apartment in the Bay Area, a place where public transportation could facilitate access to jobs, community and language.

Studying public policy in grad school, I hope to be able to bridge my background navigating resources to improve the scope of services offered for this next generation of citizens. The expression “charity gives, but justice saves” continues to direct my work. Refugee families need donations of furniture, clothing, and coats to start their lives in a new country. They also need access to education and jobs that will help them to more actively be part of the country.

The first family I worked with to navigate their life in the United States worked at a meat slaughtering facility. My friend had a supervisor who spoke her language, enabling her to quickly understand instructions and get a raise. A tradeoff to affording rent included not learning English at work, and laboring in a physically and psychologically challenging position.

In the Bay Area, two individuals who formerly worked for a refugee resettlement agency opened a non-profit coffee shop. It employs refugees and runs a barista training program. It’s a smaller initiative that has a big impact. At the café and at locations that hire baristas, refugees are at the front of a business. They build a network of clients that can be future references, roommates or friends.

I live and study close to this café, and regularly arrange meetings here. Who we choose to support and the conversations we direct are small ways to live out values after JVC. But even small actions can build bigger change.

Pamela Larson is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies public policy and international & area studies. She served at Casa Marianella, a shelter for asylum-seekers and immigrants in Austin, TX (2010-11).  She has been a researcher for the International Rescue Commission and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan.