Unsettled

War refugees in Dallas find themselves in the crossfire of a another battle -- with the people in charge of welcoming them to America

But that wasn't necessarily the case for the Zeba family. Weiss says these three Bosnians, who fled to America after Serbs burned down their house in 1996, should have been easy to resettle. This free-case family -- two twentysomething brothers and their mother -- was educated and eager to work. But more than three months after their arrival, none of them had jobs, and they were facing eviction. Refugee Services did pay two months' rent on their $380-a-month apartment -- a total of $760 out of the $1,740 in federal grant money. But, says 26-year-old Jasmin Zeba, that was about all.

He says they had no furniture until Weiss and a few other volunteers brought them some. And he and his brother, who a year later went to work at Refugee Services, repeatedly asked for a job and English classes but were ignored by the agency. "Nobody told us where to go or what to do," Zeba recalls. "And it's not easy getting a job with no English." When they ran out of money, the Richardson mosque took up a collection to pay their rent. Zeba, who still has never had an English class, eventually found himself a job four months after arriving in the U.S., bagging groceries at Kroger. Currently a telecommunications technician for Fujitsu, Zeba says his family is fine now, "but it was very hard. We did not get much help."

Later in 1996, Refugee Services took on the difficult case of three "at risk" Somali widows -- at risk because they had been raped, their husbands had been murdered, they spoke no English, and they needed medical attention. "We were told that every agency in America had refused them," Weiss says, "and that we were their last hope." Corcoran told concerned board members not to worry, she says, "because we had extra funds available for them." When they arrived with their 11 children, they had no housing, so they camped out on the floors of other Somali clients. Soon after, the widows disappeared.

Refugee Services board president Lance Rasbridge weathers criticism of his agency.
Refugee Services board president Lance Rasbridge weathers criticism of his agency.
Safia Ismael, former president of the Somali Women's Association, says Refugee Services failed to provide basic assistance to three Somali women and their children.
Safia Ismael, former president of the Somali Women's Association, says Refugee Services failed to provide basic assistance to three Somali women and their children.

Weiss, along with fellow board member Tony Chuoke and Safia Ismael, then president of the Somali Women's Association, went looking for them. They found them sitting together on rotting carpet in a condemned apartment in Northeast Dallas.

"It was really awful, very, very bad," says Ismael, who has since moved to the United Arab Emirates but returned to Dallas in June to visit her daughters. "They said it was better in the refugee camps than in America." The women and children ended up being placed in public housing, where they were given $12 every 15 days for their expenses. One widow was eight months pregnant before she saw a doctor for prenatal care, 10 weeks after her arrival.

When Weiss approached Corcoran about the matter, he claimed that he personally tried to take the woman to a doctor but that she refused. "That's what Chip would do," says Weiss, firing off a typical rant against Corcoran. "He'd say it was the refugees' fault when something didn't get done."

But according to Corcoran, "The widows and their children are doing quite well. I think they're living in Minnesota now."

Indeed they are. They moved there, they say, because Minnesota is one of the best states in the country for people on welfare.

David Robinson, deputy director of refugee admissions for the State Department, says refugees are not supposed to end up as public charges. "If after a period of time, 90 days usually, they are on welfare, that is considered problematic," he says. "The agency is supposed to make sure that doesn't happen."

Throughout the spring and summer of 1996, Weiss was becoming more vocal at board meetings about what she believed were unacceptable results for the cases Refugee Services was resettling. Soon the entire board was grumbling. Some were asking Corcoran for clearer financial reports -- they say that he gave them the impression that there was no government money in the till -- while others were asking to review procedures for removing board members.

In April 1996, the Jelanis arrived in Dallas. This Somali family of six ran into trouble when the patriarch, Abubakr, lost his family's I-94s -- documents they needed to work in the United States. One son, Saed, had already found a job before the forms were lost, so he was able to continue his job at a 7-Eleven, working 18-hour days to support the family. But the rest waited. And waited. Weiss soon learned that six weeks had passed without the I-94s being replaced and began to complain.

Corcoran claimed that he had made an appointment for Abubakr Jelani to go to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office, but that Abubakr refused to go.

That's not true, says Saed, speaking for his father, who still speaks little English. They wanted to go very badly, he says. "I wanted my father to be able to work so that I could study and our family could survive...But Chip never telephoned us."

Eventually the Jelanis decided to approach Catholic Charities for help, shortly after the government informed them they were losing their food-stamp benefits becaused Saed was employed. Catholic Charities sent a letter to INS and received a response in a week. It then passed that information to Refugee Services, which, because it was the Jelanis' sponsor, had to complete the paperwork.

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