Somalia on the West coast of Africa

Bakatampa Mutombo

Refugee resettlement


Iowa is now home to a large group of African refugees. The largest group of African refugees came to Iowa from Sudan and Somalia in 1997. Another group came from Burundi and Rwanda in 1999. And the group from the Congo came this year.

Somalian child separated from
her family during the civil war.

According to Wayne Johnson, chief of the Bureau of Refugee Services in Iowa, 261 Africans, mostly Sudanese, came to Des Moines. Most of those Sudanese families have been settled in Cedar Rapids. The number of refugees in Iowa has increased this year with more refugees than a year before entering the United States, Johnson said.

Interviews with Africans showed that some refugees are very frustrated when they first come to to Iowa. Some lost their parents during political wars in their home country, some lost everything they had, and some left their home country with only the clothes on their backs and didn't bring anything with them. Most don't want to go back to their homeland.

Some families have been separated from each other, and children are left to fend for themselves. Many young children have been orphaned or separated from their families during civil war in Africa. The government soldiers and rebels shoot at people. Everybody ran his own way. Parents, if they were not killed, ran one way; and children another. They fled to a neighboring country where they were put into a refugee camp.

Now, refugees see Iowa where they live, as their home. I believe that if they were to go back to their home country, they would be going into a distressed area.

Congolese refugees with no shelters in
their home country.Congolese refugees
with no shelters in their home country.

Political wars and ethnic conflicts have increased the number of people trying to flee Africa. In countries such as the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi blood has flowed on lands now threatened by human suffering. Political and ethnic wars left thousands of people without shelters or homes in these countries.

Many refugees continue to leave their home countries to go somewhere in the world for security. Most often in the first country of asylum, there are no solutions to the refugees' problems because the number of asylum seekers is always growing. This causes an economic crisis in many African countries.

Resettlement in a third country such as the the United States remains the last permanent solution of refugee situations. Refugees need help to get information, learn about American culture and how to get a job when they come to America.

"We send send refugees to work two months after their arrival to maintain our philosophy of placing them into jobs to become self-sufficient as quick as possible and get them off of public assistance," said Johnson. Lack of English will not prevent them from working, but they will learn more English to progress to a better job.

He indicated that the number of refugees on the welfare program is too low because most of them want to work soon after arrival in their new communities.He said that financial and medical assistance are available only for a limited period of time to help those who need services before placement in new jobs.

Statistics as of Oct. 1, 1999 show that only 290 out 20,000 refugees in Iowa are on welfare receiving Family Investisment Program (FIP) for families with children. "We want them to maintain their customs and cultures," said Johnson. He also indicated that the Bureau of Refugees expects them to learn the American culture to become part of the American community.

Melyssa Wyers, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees in Washington DC, said that refugees need special help because they come to America without anything and they have to start new lives. Success in resettlement depends as much on attitude and efforts as on thethe type of help they receive.

Wyers said that refugees are eligible for food stamps, cash and medical assistance; however, such government public assistance depends on how each state makes decisions.

According to Kris Millsap, Lutheran Social Service Refugees supervisor, resettlement is a permanent decision for refugees. She said that during the first weeks, her office helps refugees to find a place to live, along with necessary furnishings, learn how to shop in American stores and enroll children in school.

Millsap said that in the United States great value is placed on being employed. It is essential for refugees to develop a positive attitude and demonstrate that they are ready to go to work because they will be completing with others for the same jobs.

Refugees have the same employment rights as every American. However, some jobs with the Federal government are open only to American citizens.

Resettlement is the first step to becoming a permanent resident and a citizen of the United States. After one year, a refugee is eligible to apply for a lawful permanent residency and receive a "green card." Then, the person will be eligible to apply for American citizenship five years after the date of admission to the United States. Once refugees become citizens, they can vote and travel abroad with few restrictions. They may request a reunion in the United States with parents, children and family members, according to the U.S.Department of States, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.


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African refugees and cultural adjustment