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Memphis refugee program under fire

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Memphis, Tenn.

The refugee resettlement program of Associated Catholic Charities of Memphis has come under fire by a group of concerned Catholics who say the agency places its beneficiaries in dangerous, substandard housing and does not do enough to help them assimilate into American society.

The group’s leaders, attorneys Lillian Dykes and Duncan Ragsdale, have said the program should be shut down if the problems aren’t corrected, because many refugees would be better off in refugee camps or in their own countries.

Associated Catholic Charities vigorously denies the charges, stressing instead that the program is responsible for saving many lives of people threatened in their countries because of war, religion or their political beliefs.

“I think the idea that Catholic Charities shouldn’t try and serve these people is what I find offensive,” said executive director Brian O’Malley. “I think it is a complex program for people to understand, and unless you have worked in the trenches some with these people and have come to understand what their needs are you can get pretty confused about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The lawyers’ complaints have reached Washington and resulted in a review of the program, requested by the U.S. State Department and carried out by a team from the United States Catholic Conference, the social services arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. That team’s initial reports claim that the number of refugees involved in the apartments in question is drastically lower than the lawyers claimed and that they detected few code violations.

The nationally respected Associated Catholic Charities Refugee Services Program of the Memphis diocese receives funding from the federal government through the U.S. Catholic Conference. It has brought about 350 refugees to Memphis every year since 1975.

Ironically, Dykes and Ragsdale discovered the refugee problems only after Associated Catholic Charities implemented a new housing program designed to address substandard housing and other assimilation issues. This fall, the city’s chronic lack of decent low-income housing prompted the agency to enter into an agreement with an inner-city property owner to turn one complex, the Catalina, into a transitional refugee community. A staff person was given a free place to live at the Catalina, where he is supposed to act as a troubleshooter and a liaison between refugees and the agency.

When Dykes and Ragsdale, parishioners of Sacred Heart Church, visited the Catalina for a gathering organized by employee David Spangler, they were shocked by the living conditions of the refugees. Situated in a drug-infested area down the street from a dilapidated public housing development, the attorneys found refugees living in formerly vacant apartments with defective heating and wiring systems and no air conditioning despite the oppressive summer heat. Many arrived to almost completely unfurnished apartments. Some reported being accosted by drug dealers, pimps and thieves, as well as being awakened in the night by frequent gunfire.

“A handful of us who have come to know these people and have done what we could do to alleviate the misery that is going on have discovered a quagmire of inhumanity under the auspices of the Catholic church,” Dykes wrote in a Nov. 13, 1998, letter to Bishop James Terry Steib.

Safeguarding funding

Dykes and Ragsdale have said Associated Catholic Charities is more concerned about safeguarding its funding than improving living conditions for refugees. What began as a quiet plea to Steib has turned into a crusade to expose what the lawyers see as the program’s shortcomings.

It is a crusade that has gone all the way to Washington. Less than a week after the attorneys’ allegations appeared in the Memphis daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, Mark Franken, executive director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Migration and Refugee Services, wrote a letter to Steib in which he said the Memphis program “ranks among the best.” Catholic Charities is an organization founded to promote charitable activities. It often administers programs on the local level that are initiated and overseen by the Catholic Conference.

A State Department official said the Catholic Conference sent a team to review the Memphis program in mid-December after prompting by the department. The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the State Department has not received complaints about any other Catholic Charities organizations in the country.

The U.S. Catholic Conference team followed up news reports that 100 refugee apartments had been cited for code violations. The team, however, reported to Franken that they found only nine apartments housing refugees and, of that number, only four refugees who had been placed by Catholic Charities.

Memphis code enforcement officials said that 98 percent of all code violations in the apartments in question had been repaired by Dec. 17, 1998.

Franken said he expected a full report from the team in the coming weeks.

Responding to the team’s findings, Dykes said, “If the USCC [U.S. Catholic Conference] came down here to do an investigation and they had time to look through 100 apartments and didn’t have time to call me and didn’t have time to walk through these apartments on Court and Jefferson [another complex] and see where refugees are living in squalor with rats, then I question their sincerity in doing any kind of independent investigation.”

She charged that the team from the Catholic Conference doesn’t want to find anything wrong with the Catholic Charities operation.

The Catholic Conference is one of 10 agencies working with the State Department to offer direct assistance to refugees through affiliates like Catholic Charities. The conference receives $740 per refugee, but only about $250 on average actually gets transferred to the refugee once salaries and administrative costs are filtered out, according to the State Department official.

Carolyn Tisdale, who directs the local Catholic Charities refugee program, said each refugee on average receives between $600 and $800 of actual cash assistance.

She said refugees are signed up for Social Security cards, health care and food stamps as soon as they arrive. Refugees are encouraged to get jobs as soon as possible, because after two months they are responsible for paying their own rent and utilities.

Problems obtaining health care

In reality, many refugees, like Zahara Jalloub’s family, have problems obtaining health care and gainful employment. Jalloub, her husband and 12 children, whose ages range from 8 months to 24 years, arrived in Memphis from Iraq three months ago. A physician who volunteered to examine Jalloub told her she needed surgery on her back and her uterus. Although she is in constant pain, she can’t see a specialist until her family receives health insurance cards from the state.

The family’s situation isn’t unusual. Even though refugees are eligible for Medicaid upon their arrival in the United States, some states, including Tennessee, take a long time to get them certified for assistance. As a result, many refugees are unable to gain access to medical treatment even though states are receiving a monthly per capita fee from the federal government to treat them. David Smith, associate director of the Office of Refugee Health in Washington, said he doesn’t see a resolution to the access problem in Tennessee anytime soon.

The critics also charge that Catholic Charities does not do enough to place refugees in decent jobs. Jalloub’s oldest daughter, for instance, has been able to find only a low-wage temporary job with no benefits. Tennessee refugee coordinator Steven Meinbresse says underemployment is a major problem for refugees across the country.

“For a large program that does a lot of resettlement, I think they [Catholic Charities] do an OK job,” Meinbresse said. Many of the employment problems could be attributed to the program’s complex funding arrangement. In addition to the resettlement funding from the State Department, Catholic Charities gets funding for job training, social adjustment and English-language training from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health and Human Services money, which comes through the state, is supposed to be spent training refugees for jobs that will lead them to economic self-sufficiency, while the State Department stresses early employment and keeping refugees off welfare.

As a result, many refugees are placed in low-wage, unskilled jobs with no benefits.

“It’s difficult because what the State Department wants is different than what the state wants,” Meinbresse said. “The program is pulled in two different directions.”

In response to intense public criticism of the program this month, Steib recently voiced his support and organized a task force to look into the attorneys’ allegations. The task force may oversee the refugee program permanently.

Meanwhile, Dykes and Ragsdale are collecting more files on the refugee cases, more fodder for a lawsuit. They said they do not want to take this to the courts, but that might be the only thing that will force Catholic Charities to confront these issues.

“Who cares what it looks like? It’s their obligation to perform the contract,” Ragsdale said. “They find a few refugee success stories, but they don’t show you the 12-person Iraqi family who can’t get jobs because they can’t speak English. This is a nightmare.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999