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

Little changed for Refugee Services clients after the board-member exodus. In August 1997, a mix of 21 Bosnian and Somali refugees was found crammed into a run-down 1,500-square-foot house without air-conditioning in Carrollton. The shelter, called The Good House, was home to Refugee Services refugees sponsored by Carrollton's First Baptist Church. It was infested with roaches and had broken floorboards, a non-functioning washing machine, no smoke detectors, and bunk beds in the hallways and attic. Safia Ismael says she tipped off city officials (along with a Channel 8 camera crew) after Corcoran told her he could do nothing about the situation. "If you tell him, let us do some help," she says, "he gets mad at us. We were just volunteers. We just wanted to help the refugees."

When code enforcers came to close down the place, the man in charge of the church's refugee program said that he knew it wasn't an ideal situation, and that he intended for them to stay there only temporarily. But he didn't have enough money for apartments. Refugee Services' assistance, he said, was just $178 a head. According to the State Department, regardless of what a church or individual sponsor agrees to provide, the onus is still on the agency to ensure the refugees get "safe, sanitary, and decent" living conditions. The Good House hardly met that standard.

As a result of the situation, The International Women's Club of Dallas, which had donated about $6,000 a year to Refugee Services over six years, dissolved its partnership with the agency. "We were concerned about the overcrowding," says Patricia Smith, a past president and current board member of the club. "And we were concerned that the management just didn't have its act together." Donations from all sources in 1997 accounted for almost $70,000 of Refugee Services' $630,000 in gross revenue.

Peter Calvin
Anne Marie Weiss, a former Refugee Services of North Texas board member, at a news conference criticizing the treatment of Muslim refugees.
Anne Marie Weiss, a former Refugee Services of North Texas board member, at a news conference criticizing the treatment of Muslim refugees.

"These people just aren't performing the way they should," says Chuoke, who continues to work with refugees by finding them jobs and apartments, and even buying them furniture and cars. (He stays a little more behind the scenes with the Kosovars because he fears his Serb heritage might unsettle the new arrivals.) "I've never had any problems like this when I did work with Catholic Charities or IRC." Catholic Charities and International Rescue Committee are two of the other three resettlement agencies in Dallas, the third being Jewish Family Services.

All three groups say money is always tight, but they can still guarantee the necessary services and then some without relying on sponsors to shoulder any financial burden. Bob Carey, IRC's vice president for resettlement, says his nonsectarian agency receives almost no sponsorships from churches and handles mostly free cases. It passes down the entire $740 from the government to the local level. "We have to ensure that services are provided," he says, "so they have to have enough at the local level to make payments on behalf of the refugees." Adding to that government grant money, IRC's local affiliates get even more money from their national organization's fund-raising efforts.

Corcoran, however, says Refugee Services' problems are not unique. "What's going on here is going on all over the country, in at least five or six other locations." Corcoran has a degree in sociology from East Texas State University and was working in a subsidized dental clinic when he took his current job to "get back in the trenches," he says.

"It's very stressful. We have a very complicated system. The government plays an equal role in all this insanity," says Corcoran, pointing out a bureaucratic Catch-22 in that giving more than $200 cash to refugees means they lose their food stamps and Medicaid benefits. Corcoran also says the churches have made things more difficult. "Some 20 years ago, when the program was established, we had churches sponsoring 85 percent of the cases," he says. "Now it's only 20 percent. The churches have abdicated their job." That, he claims, has led to many of the financial struggles he faces in resettling some 600 cases a year.

"The funding we have is grossly inadequate," he says, claiming that of the $540 sent by Church World Services, an average of $318 goes directly into the refugee's pocket. "We're not administrative-heavy. We have a very humble operation." The salaries for Refugee Services' seven part-time and five full-time employees total less than $160,000 annually. And tax records indicate more than $250,000 (of a $630,000 budget) goes directly to the refugees -- in the form of rent, furniture, food, or pocket money. "It's a tough job. The business, the refugees, people like Anne Marie -- it's overwhelming."

"That's Chip," says Weiss, who would have no problem with those figures if she believed agency employees were actually doing the bulk of the work that gets dumped on sponsors. "He'll blame everyone but himself. He'll blame the refugee, he'll blame the family, he'll blame the government, he'll blame the churches."

What other refugee relocators don't have to face is what Corcoran calls a "one-sided war" being waged by Weiss, who he says is dedicated but overzealous. "We've bent over backward for her, and she just makes it harder on everyone. Her hatred, her anger, is greater than anything I have ever known."

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