By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But three months would pass before a Refugee Services worker took the family anywhere -- and then it was not to the INS, but to the welfare office.
When Weiss learned the family was on welfare, after Corcoran had told the Refugee Service board the problem had been handled, she took her concerns to board president Lance Rasbridge, who suggested she discuss the matter directly with Corcoran. In November 1996, Corcoran promised her he would personally take Abubakr Jelani to rectify the problem. Ten days later, Corcoran responded to her complaints in writing, claiming the process had hit several bureaucratic snags but that it would all be solved in a matter of days. When January 1997 rolled around and the family was still without their I-94s, she threatened to tattle to Church World Services.
On January 9, 1997, about seven months after Saed Jelani first reported his family's I-94s were lost, Weiss received a check for $325, the cost of replacing the family's forms, along with a memo from Corcoran: "I apologize for the seemingly endless series of problems we have faced in replacing these documents...Again my sincerest apologies for any delays. Thank you. Chip."
That same day, he provided her nearly a dozen pages of financial statements to appease her money concerns. But she immediately suspected that the numbers, which showed about $13,000 spent on the Jelanis and more than $10,000 on the Zebas, were fudged. It wasn't the fact that caseworker salaries were shown to be billed at $18 an hour, even though they were making about $9, or that the documents showed some $500 of reimbursement to the Jelani caseworker, who says he got only $300.
What caught her attention was a torn piece of paper with handwritten numbers stapled to the outside of the file that showed the chunk of government cash allocated for each refugee.
"I didn't say anything, really," Weiss says, "but I was fuming. That was the proof that board members had been lied to for years about there being no money from the government for refugees." Indeed, Corcoran wrote in a letter -- printed in the Weiss-written manual How to Resettle a Refugee Family: A guide for mosques and Muslim organizations -- "Unfortunately, the government does not pay the expenses for refugee resettlement...Therefore we cannot perform our task without the help of the community."
Corcoran insists that he never misled anyone, that this, ridiculously enough, is a semantic misunderstanding. "The $580 was never meant to pay for these people, it was meant for administrative costs," he says. "Technically, the State Department doesn't require us to give them a cent. But because the [federal refugee resettlement] program is so anemic, we've been forced to use that administrative money and convert it to direct private support. There's enough for rent and furnishings and that's about it."
The State Department's Robinson says it's true that no fixed percentage of the money the government provides must go directly to the refugees. "But we do expect them to take care of the core services," he says. "Whatever the agency does with the money, they have to make sure that the refugee is provided the core services...Even if a family signs up to provide everything, it always remains the responsibility of the agency to make sure there is enough money for these requirements."
What Weiss contends is that Refugee Services didn't deliver the services -- not with free cases, and definitely not with sponsored cases. "The bulk of the monies were being retained by the agency when the sponsor was providing all the services," she says. "In the cases I resettled [as a volunteer], the agency kept 100 percent of the resettlement funds, giving me only $225 to spend on the refugees, which came directly from two churches. And I did 100 percent of the work. They never even met the clients until the 90-day checkup. Nor did they tell me there was any money available that they were keeping."
Though Corcoran and Rasbridge don't believe that a longtime board member wouldn't know about the $580 passed down from Church World Services, Weiss says: "The board was led to believe there were zero dollars from the government. We assumed all the money they did get came from private donations."
Former board member Tony Chuoke concurs, sort of.
"There was so much doubletalk. We never could get a straight answer where funds were going," says Chuoke, a retired real estate man who often invited refugees to stay in his five-bedroom home for as long as six months while they waited for apartments. And when he finally did see financial statements, he didn't trust them. "Just so much didn't make sense. All I knew is that for the amount of money coming in, the refugees weren't being taken care of properly. [Refugee Services] just never came through with anything."
Weiss resigned in January. Chuoke followed soon after, along with two others from the then 10-member board. Weiss sent a letter to Church World Services in New York demanding an investigation. She provided Deborah DeWinter, associate director of Church World Services' immigration and refugee program, with details on problematic cases as well as contact information for nine people -- caseworkers, board members, refugees, volunteers -- who she was confident could verify her claims of incompetence. (DeWinter told the Dallas Observer she did indeed contact these people, but couldn't remember specific names. They gave her "mixed reports," she said. At least five of them told the Observer that they were never contacted by Church World Services and that the agency did not return their repeated calls.)
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