By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I thought I would be helping with everything, but as a translator mostly. I didn't know they expected me to do so much," he says. "I mean, this is a lot of people. I thought Refugee Services still had to do most of the work."
A few weeks passed, and Murseli began to worry. He says that other than being given five mattresses, he never heard a word from Refugee Services about furniture or apartments or the $200 cash per person the agency allegedly promised. Then he began hearing stories.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a piece about waiter Luigi Salihi, who had 13 Kosovar relatives brought through Refugee Services crammed into his three-bedroom Valley Ranch apartment, where he lives with his family of five. Salihi claimed he didn't know what he was getting into, believing that they were going to stay there for only a few days while Refugee Services found them apartments. Corcoran was quoted as saying food and housing were the family's responsibility for the first 30 days because they signed up as sponsors. Then Channel 11 followed with a story about the first Kosovars to arrive in Fort Worth -- 17 people who ended up in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Refugee Services provided each person in that situation $200, but nothing else.
The way refugee economics works is this: The government provides $740 per refugee to one of 10 national resettlement organizations. The government doesn't care how the agencies spend the money, so long as they ensure that each refugee receives the core services promptly -- housing, furniture, food, health care, job placement, transportation. For Refugee Services this national "parent" company is Church World Services, which passes down $580 per refugee to its local affiliates. (Church World Services has 30 affiliates.) The affiliates then use that money, along with private donations, to run their operations and hopefully have enough left over to put between $125 and $200 of "dignity money" into each refugee's pocket.
Refugee Services' budget is paltry -- less than $630,000 in gross revenue to resettle about 600 refugees a year -- which is where sponsors come in. Though the State Department doesn't recognize any financial or legal responsibility for sponsors, the agency has signed up many sponsors who have agreed to foot the bills for the relatives they bring in.
In the Channel 11 story, Corcoran said, "The primary responsibility for a family case is the petitioning family," even though they claimed they didn't understand that as the agreement.
Murseli quickly realized he was in a similar situation.
"When I saw him wave that same piece of paper that I signed," Murseli says, "and they didn't give all that money from the State Department, and no rent and no food, no help, no nothing, it gave me a chill. I didn't trust him [Corcoran]. This was not my understanding. I was misled. I thought that I would be in charge of them, but Refugee Services was going to take care of them."
In a panic, Murseli called his friend Krasniqi, who he didn't know had refused to sign on as a sponsor. "Come on. We need to go see Anne Marie," Krasniqi told him.
The two went to the Far North Dallas home of Anne Marie Weiss, a well-known, well-connected do-gooder in the Muslim community who once was a Refugee Services board member. "Something is seriously wrong here," she told them. Yet for Weiss, who has been throwing around vicious accusations against Chip Corcoran and Refugee Services for more than two years now, Murseli's story could hardly be surprising.
Weiss, a Muslim convert who is fluent in Arabic, began working with Refugee Services in 1992, when the Iraqi Kurds were arriving. After several months, she was asked to join the agency's board. She quickly impressed the organization by bringing Dallas' growing Muslim population into the resettlement effort, previously the almost exclusive territory of Christian churches. It was a logical expansion considering that, according to the State Department, Muslims are the largest single group of refugees in America.
When Corcoran took over as Refugee Services director in 1995, he and Weiss formed a symbiotic partnership. In fact, Corcoran, who was getting pressure from Church World Services to increase the number of sponsorship partners, was Weiss' strongest ally when it came to expanding Refugee Services' relationship with Dallas-area Muslims. She brought in more than $10,000 worth of donations from the Muslims, along with dozens of volunteers and translators. Together, Corcoran and Weiss helped the central mosque in Richardson become the first mosque in the United States to sponsor a refugee family officially. But by the time she resigned from the board in 1997, she would be accusing Corcoran, along with Refugee Services board president Lance Rasbridge, of mishandling the money and then lying to board members, sponsors, refugees, and the State Department alike to hide funds that she believes should be available to refugees but aren't.
Corcoran says that the allegations are ridiculous, that his agency provides services far beyond the minimum required by the government. "If I went down to the minimum, I couldn't do it. That would be unconscionable. The [federal refugee resettlement program] is so anemic. Refugee Services does not believe it is dignified ethically or morally to support someone for just 31 days," he says. "We don't believe our government policy of 'You should be happy you're here' is sufficient...We do very good work with the limited funds we have. We provide at least two months' rent when we only have to pay for one. The government says we just have to refer them to a job placement service, but no, we actually get them the job. We drive them to English classes; we take them to get their food stamps and Medicaid. Our philosophy here is, take care of this stuff within three days [of arrival]. We visit the clients regularly and become their friends, well beyond the 31-day period."