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The Impact of COVID-19 on Refugee Families in Buffalo

Author: Gabrie’l J. Atchison

Millions of people around the world are displaced each year due to natural disaster, war, persecution and increasing – to climate disaster. People who meet the status of “refugee” are ones who have experienced persecution in the past or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or other group membership. Refugees can never return home.

Refugees move across borders to seek safety in a neighboring country and spend an indeterminate time in refugee camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), certain countries like the United States and other organizations care for refugees, vet them and resettle them in a new country.

Since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, under Democratic and Republican presidents, the United States has admitted more than three million refugees. According to a study on New Americans by the city of Buffalo in 2016, over 10,000 refugees had resettled in our city since 2001. Families arrived from Iraq, Burma, Dem. Rep. Congo, Somalia, and Afghanistan. “New Americans” contribute to the cultural diversity of  Buffalo.

Over 10,000 refugees had resettled in our city since 2001.

Under the Trump Administration, there has been a sharp decline in the number of refugees allowed into the United States. Each year, the administration establishes a cap on the number of refugees that will be resettled in the United States. In 2016, our cap was 85,000. In 2019, the cap had dropped to 30,000. This year was capped at 18,000. And, because of COVID-19, we most likely will not take in even that many people. This shift in U.S. policy comes at a time when there are a record number of refugees worldwide.

I spoke to people who work on behalf of refugees here in Buffalo from Jericho Road, Journey’s End, Literacy Buffalo, and Jewish Family Services to learn about how COVID-19 has changed the work they do in the community and about the unique challenges faced by refugee families living in Buffalo.

“I manage the refugee resettlement program of Jewish Family Services of Buffalo,” explained Apple Domingo. “We resettle refugees in the Buffalo area and assist them in establishing a new life here in the US. The reduced number of refugee resettlement ceiling meant that refugee resettlement is at a standstill.”

Domingo explained that the reduction in the number of people allowed in the country significantly reduced the organization’s capacity to serve those in need; and, the threat of closing refugee resettlement programming is always a possibility.

The threat of closing refugee resettlement programming is always a possibility.

Deacon Thomas Tripp of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Eggertsville, has been working on behalf of refugees for more than fifteen years with a number of organizations including Journey’s End.

Deacon Tripp explained, “We used to be able to conduct several ‘Home Again’ projects a year to meet the needs of incoming refugees. My church did our own; we collaborated with other Episcopal churches, and collaborated with churches in other Christian denominations. We did all this work for more than ten years, and secured a grant from the Western New York Diocese to further it into the diocese and beyond with education, recruitment, and emphasis on ‘Welcoming the Stranger’”.

“When President Trump’s travel ban was put into action in January of 2017, the influx of refugees coming into the Buffalo area was seriously curtailed.” He continued, “Refugee agencies became faced with changing their emphasis from resettlement to caring and administering to those already here in the Buffalo area. We in the church had to change along with that, and this past year we began a mentoring program for refugee families in need… Then Covid hit us.”

Jericho Road has been providing medical care for all who are in need throughout Buffalo for twenty-five years. Founder and Executive Director Dr. Myron Glick explained that even though there have been fewer new refugees entering the city, there is still a great need for support for refugee families who are already living here.

“Infrastructure for refugee resettlement has lost a lot of funding so across the country a lot of places will have to shut down their refugee resettlement work.” He explained. “Buffalo has been lucky because the state has basically subsidized the refugee resettlement agencies.”

As part of the organization’s mission, Jericho Road offers COVID-19 testing and treatment. Even though COVID-19 is a disease that can impact anyone, Dr. Glick has found disparities across racial difference. “Disproportionately COVID-19 impacts people of color especially black people and refugees. Our data is very clear on that. We’ve done a lot of testing. Anyone can come in and get tested six days a week. They don’t need to have insurance, and they don’t have to be a patient.”

Dr. Glick explained that Jericho Road has tested about 7,500 people with a fairly even distribution across race. He found that positivity rates are 3% for white Americans, 15% for black Americans and 26% for refugees – primarily among people from Burma and Nepal. Jericho Road has also cared for 850 COVID-19 patients. Of them 7% have been white, 28% have been black or African and 56% are Asian refugees.

The racial disparities in COVID-19 that Dr. Glick has found are consistent with the findings of health providers throughout the country.

In addition to the disproportionate presence of COVID-19, refugee communities were also hit by loss of income and financial hardships. Because they cannot receive assistance from the federal stimulus packages, many refugee families will rely on assistance from nonprofit and faith-based organizations – who may themselves be experiencing reduced funding.

Because they cannot receive assistance from the federal stimulus packages, many refugee families will rely on assistance from nonprofit and faith-based organizations – who may themselves be experiencing reduced funding.

Many refugee families live in multigenerational homes, where social distancing is not possible. Cultural differences as well as a fear of the police or authorities may prevent people from getting the help they need. Also, language issues or a ‘digital divide’ separate many people from accessing information or services. Domingo added that quarantine and isolation may be triggering for people dealing with trauma. Gone also is the hope, held by some that they would be reunited with family members who were going through the process to come to the U.S.

Due to the different travel bans and other restrictive aspects of the Trump Administration policies, the lowest number of refugees since the federal program began in the 1980’s has been welcomed into the U.S. As a result, many of the organizations which served refugee families have needed to shift their focus or close their doors. Like other vulnerable communities, refugee communities in the U.S. have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19 as both a health issue and as a financial crisis.

Organizations poised to help refugee families stand in the gap for people in need. They may have had to change the way they deliver their services, but they have not strayed from their mission.

If you would like to help, please visit the websites for the organizations mentioned in this article to learn more about what you can do.

Image by Ryse Lawrence from Pixabay

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