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Soaring housing costs burden local refugee program

Mark Parker

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Children wait for food at a refugee camp in Sudan. A local nonprofit needs help resettling families in Tampa Bay. Photo: Gators for Refugee Medical Relief.

Families from war-torn countries risk losing their new lease on life as rising living costs throughout Tampa Bay have brought a local refugee program to its tipping point.

Clearwater-based Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) has issued an urgent plea for help sustaining its Refugee Assistance Program. The organization has assisted over 3,000 people who hope to rebuild their lives locally in the past two years.

However, refugees resettled through the federal Refugee Resettlement and Match program only receive $3,125 per person for food, housing and other living expenses. Gulf Coast JFCS is now imploring community leaders to help those families become self-sufficient within the government’s 90-day window.

“There is this image in everyone’s mind when they arrive in the U.S., and it’s this idea that the U.S. is this amazing, prosperous country full of opportunity,” said Elke Cumming, senior vice president. “And then they get here, and it’s like, ‘Wow, people are struggling.’ It’s a little bit of a challenge to accept that reality check when you first get it.”

Elke Cumming, senior vice president of programs at Gulf Coast JFCS.

Gulf Coast JFCS Refugee Services needs financial assistance to keep families housed, as some rents have doubled in the past two years. The nonprofit is also searching for temporary, free or low-cost housing options.

However, finding employers willing to hire refugees is also a challenge. While they are eligible to work immediately after reaching the U.S., it takes time to settle into their new surroundings and receive employment permits – although those are not legally required.

“We can connect employers with other employers who previously worked with refugees to show them the skills they are getting,” Cumming said. “They want to become part of the economic drivers of the community.

“They want to be successful. They want to provide for their families as quickly as possible.”

Many of the program’s resettled families fled conflicts in countries like Ukraine and Afghanistan. Cumming said they typically choose Tampa Bay due to familial ties or after connecting with local refugees from their native countries.

Gulf Coast JFCS receives about three days’ notice before refugees arrive at the airport. The organization provides housing in an apartment or hotel, a culturally appropriate meal and basic necessities.

The resettled families also receive a cell phone and emergency contact information. “Everything is alien and new,” Cumming said.

After the initial acclimation period, Gulf Coast JFCS begins showing refugees how to utilize public transportation and enrolls children in area schools. Cumming called the latter aspect “a real doozy” for cultures that forbid girls from receiving an education.

She stressed the importance of volunteers, particularly those who understand cultural differences. The organization also provides career training and helps entrepreneurial-minded refugees launch businesses.

Cumming said there has been “a huge bump” in people fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan. However, their native country is not a factor, and Gulf Coast JFCS has also helped resettle families from Congo, Cuba and “anywhere you can imagine in the world that there are refugees.”

“We’ve met folks who grew up in a refugee camp and started raising their own family there,” Cumming added. “There’s all different types of experiences that bring a refugee here to our region.”

Most refugees in the local program must learn how to use a cell phone. Photo provided.

She realized that refugees often receive a PowerPoint presentation that depicts the traditional image of a suburban single-family home with a tree swing in the yard before they leave for the U.S. They then request those specific accommodations.

Cumming noted that many refugees were once doctors, judges and elected officials who grew accustomed to their former lifestyle. She called moving those people into a one or two-bedroom apartment a “shock to the system.”

“What we try to instill in folks is … this is where we all begin in the U.S.,” Cumming said. “But yes, you can set up that business. Yes, you can work. It’s not going to be immediate, but there is a pathway to that future.”

She also stressed that what refugees face in America is exponentially better than spending years in a refugee camp tent. “So, while we see a lot of limiting factors for them, they’re seeing a lot of liberty and opportunities that they didn’t previously have,” Cumming added.

She explained that many employers are hesitant to help put refugees on that pathway due to recently passed Florida laws that prohibit employing “undocumented immigrants.” Similar hurdles arise with apartment management companies.

Cumming said refugees are “pretty well screened” before ever setting foot in America. She stressed they are here with “the full knowledge and permission of the U.S. government.”

Gulf Coast JFCS also needs home furnishings, Kosher and Halal food and personal hygiene donations to support its refugee program. “These are folks who are becoming part of your business, your community, and you’re helping them have a strong start so that they can help build up our region for years to come,” Cumming said.

For more information, visit the website here.

 

 

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Steven Brady

    July 12, 2024at3:28 am

    Why do I find this hard to believe? The first claim is that rents have doubled in 2 years. Really? In what universe?

    And we are to believe the below quote is true with regard to refugees coming from the Congo and Afghanistan? Really? I can’t imagine anyone believing that or that they should believe it.

    “Cumming noted that MANY refugees were once doctors, judges and elected officials who grew accustomed to their former lifestyle. She called moving those people into a one or two-bedroom apartment a “shock to the system.” EMPHASIS ADDED.

  2. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    July 11, 2024at7:50 pm

    Plenty of US citizens need help.
    Let the refugees figure it out for themselves or return from where they came.

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