Lisa Brennan from Ascentria on Refugees
Lisa: Well, thank you very much. I’m really delighted to be here and I could not have picked a better week or a worse week to be talking to you about refugees. So thank you, Rich, for explaining the fact that this is controversial. Let’s face it. I’m happy to answer questions. I’m going to go through a presentation, but before I start, I want to say to you that I’m also a landlord, so I understand the perspective from which you are coming at this issue. I hope by the end of the time we spend together, which is just a few minutes, that you’ll have more information to work from and you’ll have started thinking about potentially opening up your properties if you feel it’s right for you to some of our clients. So let’s get started.
Just a little bit of an overview. Ascentria is one refugee resettlement agency across the nation that works with the US Department of State and the Commissioner for Refugees to resettle refugees throughout the country. We are not the only game in town here in Worcester. There’s two other refugee resettlement agencies. We happen to be the largest one, and we are part of the nationwide network.
We serve refugees from more than just Syria. If you want to watch the news, you would think that the only people that we bring into the country are Syrians; however, we bring people in from all around the world, 30 countries. We bring in unaccompanied children. We bring in immigrants and asylees and also victims of torture and human trafficking.
So it’s important to keep in mind that when I’m talking about our clients, I’m talking about refugees. We’re keeping aside for the moment a conversation about asylum seekers and SIVs and all the other classifications of stateless people, okay? We’re just talking about refugees and for legal reasons, I want to point out this definition: “A refugee is a person who is forced to leave outside of the country of his or her nationality because of a well-founded fear of persecution as a result of their race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group.”
When a person gets that designation as a refugee, they have gone through a very long sometimes 2 and 3 years long vetting process. Much to the misunderstanding of many of our politicians and governors across the state this week, who are not aware of that process and the details involved in that process, they go through a rigorous screening in this country. Not all countries have the same process. But when they arrive, they arrive fully authorized by the US government to enter the country, to work, and to receive public benefits while they work towards becoming self-sufficient.
My job ‑ and I have a colleague here who’s joined me tonight, Mohan Sunuwar – can you just wave, thank you. Thank you for coming tonight. Mohan runs a department that helps people when they arrive to become self-sufficient. That is our goal. So, this is a legal definition of a person who arrives in this country.
Any questions about that one? Yes?
Male Audience 1: I guess that it is important to know that America today is probably the most serious, the most thorough checking.
Lisa: I love you. I don’t know who you are, but I love you. Yes.
Male Audience 1: [unintelligible 0:03:53] down.
Lisa: Yes, thank you. That’s true. That’s true. Okay, so just so you know there’s what’s called the presidential determination and you may have heard recently that in this past month in October, the President and Congress voted to raise the annual number of people refugees that they will allow into the country. This year, we are allowing 85,000 refugees into the United States. How many will come to Worcester? For our organization, we’re going to be resettling 270 refugees.
Refugees undergo extensive screenings before they arrive in the United States. In addition to the medical screenings that they undergo, they also undergo security checks in cooperation with the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense, along with other agencies. The process is long, and arduous, and thorough.
Refugees are subject to the very highest level of security checks of any traveler coming to the United States. I think I’d beat that horse dead, right? Okay. So when they get here, resettlement agencies, Mohan’s department, we receive a small stipend for each person who arrives. With that money, our case managers help find housing. That’s why you care about this right now because most of that stipend goes towards securing housing for our clients.
Every refugee that we work with has a case manager. Those case managers very often speak the same language as our refugee clients. They’re part of a multilingual multicultural support team. That’s important for you to know because if you have a client who’s a refugee, you need to know that there’s someone that you can call if there is a problem. Our case managers communicate regularly with our clients by phone or in person. Mohan can attest we are in very close communication with our clients if there is a problem especially when people first arrive, they don’t know anyone else. They know their case managers, so they call us, and we are the first ones to respond to any issues that arise.
What landlords can expect from refugee clients? They can expect clients who have been fully screened and have passed stringent US State Department security measures. They can expect clients who arrive eager and able to enter the workforce. You will never find a clientele who is more eager to find a job and get to work. If they’re unable to work and sometimes there are people who are unable to work because of their health histories, significant health problems, we then work with them to help them apply for public assistance benefits so that they can support themselves.
You can also expect that our clients are going to be on time with their rental payments, at least for the first 3 months because that’s when they receive the most supportive case management services. You can also expect to receive assistance with interpretation and tenant-landlord issues. We have approximately 17 to 20 languages that we have worked with in our agency, and we have a very large network of people who interpret for us. If we don’t have the language capacity on our staff, we can find people in the community to help negotiate issues. If you are hesitant about renting to a Nepali speaker who just arrived from Bhutan, don’t worry. We have people who can help translate the transactions.
Male Audience 2: Is that your headquarters?
Lisa: No. Is that your property? [laughter] No. That’s – what’s that?
Male Audience 2: I said I know.
Lisa: It’s a photo from Worcester, so you may know where it is, yeah. You could also expect a timely response to tenant issues to the extent possible. I want to make sure that we’re setting realistic parameters here. We do like to let our case managers sleep once in a while, so I’m going to put that caveat in there, but we are ready to assist with landlord-tenant issues.
You can also expect a group of hardworking, intelligent people who are part of caring families just like yours and mine. You will also encounter tenants who may need a little extra time to figure out how things work here, and I put that yellow trash bags just to remind me that we often have those kinds of small cultural learning issues that we have to address with new arrivals. Some people have grown up in a refugee camp and there are not formalized sanitation processes, so the idea of having to go to a store and purchase a particular color trash bag in order to put their trash out on a particular day in a particular place is a new concept.
There are hundreds of those kinds of new concepts for people. If you’re looking or interested in working with refugee clients, these are some of the things that we just ask you to have patience with. We will help negotiate those issues, but there is a little learning curve sometimes.
This is what you should not expect and this may be a determining factor for some of you, but right now we are obviously are working with people who have no US rental history. That’s pretty obvious. It doesn’t mean they don’t know how to keep an agreement or are willing to pay their rent. It just means they don’t have a formal credit or rental history here. They don’t have a formal US work history either.
What they do have is a team of people who also work at Ascentria with me to help people learn English and find jobs. People are getting placed in jobs rather quickly and I don’t want to brag, but I can say that our resettlement agency has the number 1 placement rate for employees for new refugees becoming employed. There are times of the year where we don’t have enough refugees to place in jobs, and they are not the jobs – don’t worry there’s another controversial issue that we can get into next time – but they’re not taking US jobs. I’m going to say that, but they’re working and they’re working quickly. They may not have a long US work history, but they’re very willing and eager to work.
Then there’s a note that I want to add in here about tenancy at will. We, as an agency, work very closely with our clients, for as long as we possibly can, at least 3 months, usually 6 months oftentimes a year, oftentimes longer than that, a year or 2 years. We cannot control where our clients decide to live. If we place them in an apartment that they decide is not the right neighborhood for their children to go to school in, that is just like your option and my option. That is their option and we support them and help them make that decision.
We encourage people however to stay in a place if it’s safe and secure until they become adjusted and get to know the city a little bit better, but I just want to put that out there. Bernard Habimana, if you are interested in working with our agency and with our clients, he will be your contact person. I’ll give you his contact information at the end. He’s the one that said, “Please make sure that this group understands that clients can move if they feel they’re not comfortable or happy with the unit we provided, that we have to allow them that flexibility and freedom, okay?”
Okay, so this is the bottom-line: you have property, we have clients. Our 270 clients that we resettle here may move once or twice. They may bring family members over the next year to join them here in the City of Worcester, so there is a growing number of people who are looking for housing, and it’s a constant number of people looking for apartment rentals in the City of Worcester. So, I think we should work together.
If you’re interested and this is the idea that you’d like to learn more about, you like to learn more about our clients, I invite you to contact myself. My number is here on the bottom, or Bernard Habimana, who is a former refugee himself, so he can speak very, very clearly and compassionately about the issues that you may be facing with clients. If you have other ways that you’d like to engage with this work or furnishings that are leftover and you want a place to donate, we can talk about that as well. You can talk to Beth Singley, who’s also in our organization and in our department.
That’s all I have. I’m very happy to answer any questions that you might have [applause].
Rich: So if somebody has a question, you go ahead place your hand up, and I will make my way over to you. Sandy has one.
Male Audience 3: Can you put that last slide back up?
Lisa: Sure. I think I can.
Sandra: Your organization is very similar to the Lutheran Social Services in the sense that ‑
Lisa: We are. We actually are Lutheran Social Services. We changed our name [laughter].
Sandra: You did? Okay.
Sandra: This is where I think that we could really use your help in dealing with the population that you have. What I have generally found is that the families are very large. They don’t come two or three. They’re usually six, eight, etc., and a lot of us don’t have units that can take in that large number of people. We may start out with two or three, and then we find out that we got six, eight, or ten, somewhere down the line, so that’s one of the concerns that a lot of us have in terms of that. The second one and I think I can speak very much for this group is that there is a real cultural difference and so that that the kinds of sanitary issues that come to us make it very difficult for us to keep our units habitable and then the code department comes down on us like a ton of bricks.
I would like to know whether or not when you’re first dealing with the families if there is some sort of informational sheet, or book or something along the lines that says when you rent an apartment, you have to do X,Y, and Z. I have a unit now that the floor is like an ice rink because of the oil that they use to do the cooking that the smoke detectors go off all the time, etc.
There are certain things that if you really want to work with us, there are real issues that we have to deal with and really could use more intervention from your staff because while they are there for 3 months, usually the problems they go beyond 3 months. As you know, in this state, it’s very expensive to do an eviction. So, your counselors need to be much more involved with us as property owners because of the problems that we face in terms of – and you’ve taken in a lot of the Lutheran Services now known as Ascentria whatever it is, so we’ve taken in your families.
Lisa: Thank you for that, and I appreciate the honesty and I appreciate the feedback around each of those issues. Family size, absolutely. Let me just address that first and just tell me when we don’t have any more time, Rich. You can just give me the sign.
Rich: Well, you have time to answer Sandy’s quick question.
Lisa: [laughter] All right, so Sandy, when we first place a family in a unit, we go by the state guidelines of people per room and family breakdown and square footage per person. What happens after that I understand there are families that are large and there are people who invite family members to come in while they get adjusted to the city that we’re not even aware of. So, you’re right. Family size can become an issue over time for sure. We do run into those situations with people coming from certain countries where the culture is that the larger the family, the more wealthy the family so it’s definitely a cultural difference, and we sometimes struggle to find units that are large enough, and so we end up renting two units and use those for the whole family. We don’t have a lot to work with there. If their family is large, we give them the apartments that meet the criteria, but we have no control over who gets invited into the home after we’re done.
In terms of having more counselors that can spend, do more intensive work, I agree and I don’t have the resources for that. What we do is we have ‑ not to the extent that I would like ‑ we have case managers that spend one-on-one time the first few weeks with a client is educating them in all of those issues. We just don’t have the manpower to give it as much attention as we would like. We have a designated housing case manager and that’s pretty much his job is to help educate people about their rights and responsibilities as a tenant. For many clients, this is the first time. Is it enough? No. I’d love to have four case managers that do that and can negotiate and build more relationship with you so that when you have an issue, you can call us right up and we’re able to respond immediately. We do that to a degree but it’s not enough and I agree with you.
Rich: So you had mentioned that some of these case workers, they’re out and about all the time.
Rich: So if we were to send over an email saying these guys need to clean the kitchen floor every once in a while because of cooking oil or something like that, if we were to try to do a good job communicating with the case manager, then the case manager could in turn kind of nip that in the bud possibly?
Lisa: Absolutely. We can definitely intervene at that point. Where we run into a little bit of struggle is after they’ve been with us or been here in the country for a year or more, we don’t have the manpower to stay with that many families. But certainly when they first arrive, for the first 3 to 6 to 9 months, we can find people that will speak their language and help educate on the particular issue.
Rich: I know one thing that you had mentioned to us before that they have limited resources, but it sounds like they do a very good job from the impression that I got in that I have apartments in Northbridge. I said would you guys love to Northbridge, you said I’d I love to, but what we do is we keep all of our case workers in this radius in Worcester for efficiency, which who likes to hear about their tax dollars being used efficiently [laughter], right? That’s good news, isn’t it?
Rich: So this guy here put his two hands up. Absolutely. One other question and then will you be able to hang around for folks that have questions ‑
Lisa: I’ll be around, yes.
Rich: Okay. I’ve had bedbugs twice.
Lisa: Yes, the bedbug issue.
Rich: Well not me personally. They’re not on me now [laughter]. Okay, this wasn’t like this afternoon, but is that something that you could address quickly?
Lisa: Yes, thank you. I thought I had that slide in there. I don’t know what happened to it. Let’s talk about bedbugs for a moment, our favorite subject. We typically do not have issues with bedbugs. We have had cases however over the years where a client has taken donated goods and it has created a bedbug problem. Our case managers by law, by our cooperative agreement with the Federal government are instructed to react immediately and provide every resource necessary to negotiate with the landlord and to negotiate with the client to resolve that issue.
Just so you know everyone that arrives, we purchase mattresses brand new, so for every client. We do not take donated beds. We do not take donated bedding. For the most part, we purchase most of those things new, always 100 percent brand-new wrapped mattresses, so we have not encountered a large problem with bedbugs. In the few cases that we have had when clients are under our care, we have been able to address immediately and has been from one particular community overseas where that has happened.
Rich: All right, terrific. Thank you so much, Lisa.
Lisa: My pleasure. Thank you very much [applause].