Hassan Sharif stocked up on extra food and made plans to move into a bigger apartment as he prepared for his 14-year-old daughter Mustariya’s arrival in Minneapolis from Ethiopia. She had her bags packed and her refugee travel documents in hand when she got notice that her flight had been abruptly canceled.
“She said, ‘It broke my heart,’ ” Sharif recalled. “She was crying bout it.”The spread of COVID-19 prompted the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees and International Organization for Migration last week to temporarily suspend refugee flights, prompting confusion and disappointment among the Twin Cities refugees who were waiting to be reunited with family members.
It has also raised concern among some refugee advocates that disruptions caused by the virus make it less likely that the U.S. will hit even the historically low ceiling of refugee admissions set by the White House last fall.
Meanwhile, refugees who recently arrived in the U.S. are scrambling like everyone else to cope with layoffs and with children sent home from shuttered schools, while they also contend with the added burdens of being less economically stable and having difficulty with the English language.
Refugee resettlement agencies participated in a conference call last Wednesday with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration about the suspended flights.
The refugee office in the Minnesota Department of Human Services is worried that some refugees who are newer to working in the state will be affected by unemployment insurance rules that base benefits on earnings received over the last year.
The agency has reached out to the federal government to seek flexibility in how it spends its federal funds during the pandemic.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can identify what those particular gaps might be for people who are within a year of arrival, and see how we can work to make sure that we can help them stabilize through this challenging time,” said Rachele King, refugee resettlement coordinator for the agency.
King said refugees are in a similar situation to Minnesotans living on the margins and trying to build economic stability. Maureen Warren of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota said her organization has heard from some recently arrived refugees who lost their jobs and are now looking for employment at grocery stores.
“The hospitality industry has been a major employer of refugees, so with travel down, folks working various jobs in hotels are experiencing some layoffs,” said Warren, who is vice president and chief family services officer.
Sharif, 36, fled political persecution in Ethiopia in 2007 and lived in Kenya until coming to the U.S. as a refugee in 2016. He found a job at a packaging company, rented a studio apartment in Minneapolis, and learned some English. Speaking in Oromo through a translator, he told the Star Tribune that he had long hoped for his daughter to join him in America, and now worries whether her travel documents will expire by the time the suspension is lifted.
Sharif said he wished that he could go to Addis Ababa to bring her here himself. But he said he has tried to stay strong and is continuing to work, though his employer offered staff two weeks of paid sick leave.
Sharif’s daughter was supposed to be resettled through the International Institute of Minnesota. Its director of refugee services, Micaela Schuneman, said cancellations have been coming in since Monday.
“The concern for us when a case gets canceled and is not rescheduled right away is that some of the background checks, medical checks and other things expire. ... So they’ll have to start some of those processes over, and it can really cause long delays for them to be booked for travel,” Schuneman said.
With the U.S. behind on accepting the federal limit of 18,000 refugees this year, she added, “this definitely would cause a big disruption.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote a letter to House leadership requesting that funding for refugee admissions be included in future coronavirus emergency legislation, that refugee admissions be quickly resumed and that the administration extend validity periods for visas and security checks to account for delays caused by the virus.
Arrive Ministries was set to welcome a Karen family from Thailand soon but just learned that their flight was canceled.
“I know [their Minnesota relatives] have been waiting a very long time, so I think this will be pretty disappointing for them,” said Krista Allgor, director of arrival services.
The resettlement agency is working with refugees who have been in America for as little as a few weeks and are now finding their hopes of getting a job and establishing themselves disrupted by the pandemic.
English classes and cultural orientations are on hold or delayed, and Arrive Ministries staff must work with clients over the phone instead of in person.
Refugees who are newer to Minnesota are also struggling to comprehend the drastic changes in American life. The Karen Organization of Minnesota has shifted its work with clients to the phone and is trying to get out accurate information to a community struggling to follow the news in English.
Co-executive director Eh Tah Khu said Karen refugees fear anti-Asian bias — and being mistaken for Chinese though they are an ethnic minority from Burma.
He said parents are concerned about leaving their teenagers unsupervised and seeing them get into trouble now that schools are closing. He says many are loading up on bags of rice, fearful about losing access to a dietary staple.
“I think it would be helpful for the Karen community to have reliable information in Karen that they can understand coming directly from an organization or a department that’s well-known and people can trust,” Khu said.