Longform

Unsettled

Page 5 of 8

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.)

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.

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Dan Michalski