Future of refugee resettlement uncertain in Georgia

By ANDRE GALLANTupdated Saturday, April 27, 2013 - 9:39pm

Future of refugee resettlement uncertain in Georgia

First and foremost, Sarmad Edrees is a family man. Second, he is a businessman. Third, he is a relative newcomer to the United States after fleeing his homeland.

Edrees ran a large and profitable poultry farm in Abu Ghraib, just a short drive outside of Baghdad, Iraq, until 2000.

Currently, he co-owns a cab company with his cousin, Hilal, with headquarters off Elbert Street near the Athens Perimeter.

But for much of this century’s first decade, another title followed Edrees: Refugee.

Threatened by dictator Saddam Hussein, Edrees fled by boat to Australia. There he lived far away from his wife and four children until the toppling of Hussein’s regime compelled him to return. But his country, difficult to live in under a military dictatorship, exploded with ever-present violence following the arrival of U.S. troops.

Before the U.S. invasion, if Hussein’s regime had a problem with you, Edrees explained, it was only with you. By fleeing the country, he could save his family from harm.

The situation deteriorated following Hussein’s ouster.

No one was safe, Edrees said.

Covert aggressors attempted to kidnap his youngest brother, he said, and torched his sibling’s car. To make matters worse, he said, they had no clue who was threatening them.

“They all have uniforms,” he said. “You can buy a uniform for $20.”

After a year back in Iraq, Edrees and his family fled to Jordan, where they applied for refugee status and eventually made their way to the U.S.

In 2009, Edrees joined his brother already living for more than a year in Athens. Now settled in Oconee county, the Edrees family doubled in November when Sarmad’s brother, Mohaned, arrived with his wife and four children. They all share a modest home off Highway 78.

“In 16 years, we’ve never placed people in Watkinsville,” said Mike Hoffer, a case manger with World Relief, one of the many agencies that help resettle refugees in Georgia. Hoffer is assigned to Mohaned and his family.

Organizations like World Relief, Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta, and the International Rescue Committee help refugees adapt to life in Georgia in many ways, including basic assimilation, but do so immediately by finding housing and jobs for new arrivals.

Sarmad, however, has been Mohaned’s caseworker, Hoffer said, explaining that Sarmad’s presence meant World Relief needed to fill far fewer of Mohaned’s needs.

Resettlement agencies prefer to place new refugees close to family or existing ethnic communities to ease the transition to life in the U.S. Family ties and communities are often bundled around resources – agency offices, English language classes, jobs – necessary to acclimation.

However, this aggregation of refugees in Georgia has strained the state’s resources, officials have claimed. The situation prompted the Georgia Department of Human Services to ask for a reduction of refugees coming to the state in 2013, citing school district budget shortfalls, and health and safety concerns. The U.S. Department of State would not confirm if other states had made similar requests.

“We regularly receive feedback from stakeholders involved in the refugee resettlement process and take those into account as we finalize the placement plan for the upcoming year,” wrote state department spokesperson Laura Seal in an email.

The department declined to say how regularly these adjustments are made.

Georgia is home to the seventh largest refugee population in the country. Media reports have not listed other states as requesting reductions.

Georgia’s rationale for the cuts doesn’t hold water, according to the agencies that support resettlement. Problems allegedly caused by refugees often are bottled in DeKalb and Fulton counties. But the impact of the cuts has impacted services to refugees throughout the state, refugee advocates said, and has strained the state and agency relationship supposed to benefit refugees.

“There is a general perception that refugees are a burden on the state,” said Paedia Mixon, executive director of RRISA and current president of the Coalition of Refugee Services in Atlanta. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. People don’t think about the fact that they are working very quickly and they are taxpaying citizens.”


For decades, Georgia welcomed thousands of refugees. They resettled en masse near metro Atlanta, especially in the DeKalb County city of Clarkston.

But over time, government officials started making claims that refugees’ presence, though welcome, overburdened local resources and state agencies.

In August, just after refugee agencies submitted their annual capacity proposal to the U.S. State Department, a number it uses to determine refugee placement in Georgia, DHS sent a letter to the federal agency requesting a 50 percent reduction in refugee resettlings in the state.

The reduction, in effect, ended up closer to 20 percent, though an examination of arrivals in the first two quarters of 2013 shows no sign of abatement. The reduction lowered the maximum amount of refugees coming to the state, potentially with little impact on overall arrivals, but directly impacted the budgets of aid agencies, which receive federal funding based on the number of expected resettlements.

To justify the reductions, the DHS letter specifically cites the high number of refugees resettled in Clarkston, as well as school budget shortfalls, teacher furloughs and various potential public threats like gang violence.

A report prepared by CRSA refuted these claims, citing a statistically small refugee presence within schools in DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, though 16 percent of DeKalb County is foreign-born.

In north Georgia, refugees account for an even smaller percentage, with just a few dozen arriving in recent years in Clarke and Oconee counties. Madison, though, has seen well more than 100 refugees resettle there in the last decade.

A spokesperson for Georgia DHS confirmed they’d read the CRSA report, but it did not sway their rationale for calling for reductions.

On top of specific program tightening, some agencies cut staff following the reductions.

In RRISA’s case, that meant losing a full-time worker fluent in Burmese, a nationality that accounts for the bulk of refugees arriving in Georgia, and other full-time caseworker positions. World Relief did not lose any full-time staff, Hoffer said, although the number of refugees his office plans to help has diminished.

The statewide reduction also meant fewer slots available for refugees in an effective work-readiness program called match grants. A split of federal and aid agency funds support match grants, which are considered an alternative to public assistance and put refugees on a fast track to self-sufficiency.

Match grant recipients receive some cash assistance and a caseworker who offers employment help during their 180 days in the program. Recipients aren’t allowed to accept any other public benefit during the match grant period.

Match grants in Georgia boast an 80 percent success rate, which is almost double the efficiency of other work placement programs.

Out of the 2,653 refugees who resettled in Georgia last year, 1,941 received match grants, according to a state report.

Without match grants, RRISA’s Mixon explained, refugees rely on temporary assistance for needy families, or TANF, funded by the federal government, which offers less aid than a match grant.

When Sarmad Edrees first arrived in Georgia, his family received about $400 per person to help them buy furniture, clothes, groceries and pay rent. Refugees now receive about double that amount.

Edrees leaned on food stamps in the first few months of his life here, but after eight months he was on his own. His brother will follow the same path.

A vast majority of refugees are self-sufficient after 180 days, Mixon said. After six months, refugees begin paying back their travel loans. A roughly $10,000 loan is paid off $150 at a time. Edrees finished repaying just last month.

“From my experience, compared to other countries, there’s not that much money they spend on refugees,” Edrees said.


Mixon said less than 1 percent of refugees arriving in Georgia rely on state-funded TANF. The food stamps, medical care and any cash assistance is federally funded, Mixon said, a fact confirmed by the state DHS office.

Perhaps the only state funds refugees receive are their children’s public educations. In most cases, the parents of refugee students help pay for that education through their taxes. Edrees pays taxes, pays for healthcare and the Golden Taxis business he runs with Hilal and Mohaned employs more than 20 Athenians.

Repeated requests for detailed information on costs incurred by refugees went unfilled by the Georgia DHS. A February article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted a state official estimating the cost at $6.7 million, an amount that included education costs.

Eight school-age children in the extended Edrees family attend Oconee County schools. Any special expense incurred to educate and integrate immigrants students is paid for by a federal grant dispersed through the state, said Oconee County School System grant coordinator Shannon Hammond.

Not all counties receive such funds, Hammond said. Georgia receives more than $500,000 in refugee-specific federal grants every few years to help educate refugee children and teach their parents English.

“I can’t see a tremendous additional financial burden,” Mixon said. “If you compare the cost per student at schools with high refugee populations with schools where there aren’t a lot of refugees, the cost-per-student is not higher.

“Is it challenging to educate children who don’t speak the language and don’t know the school system? Initially, it does pose some challenges, but in terms of financial impact, I can’t really see it.”

Public school students in Dekalb County represent 157 countries and 142 languages.

Though they didn’t offer any other comment, DeKalb County schools spokesperson Lillian Govus said, “Clearly when you have a population that don’t speak English it has a dramatic impact on test scores.”

Oconee schools have offered Edrees’ young wheelchair-bound daughter something significant: Due to her condition, she hadn’t been able to attend school before. Accessible buses made that possible.


One way to ease the refugee load born by metro Atlanta is to consider cities like Athens as potential resettlement sites. Lutheran Services of Georgia opened an office in Savannah last December, and Chatham County already settled 14 refugees in the first months of this year.

A few dozen refugees drive to Athens from Atlanta for work, and the low-skilled job market makes the city a potential resettlement sight, advocates said.

“Athens is certainly a city that people have talked about in the past,” Mixon said. “To my knowledge, no one has done that assessment of Athens.”

Currently, agencies are extending resettlements further into DeKalb County and other communities in the Atlanta area. The metro area boasts entrenched refugee communities, working mass transportation and is the central location for resettlement agency offices.

Edrees noted that trying to process any type of government form in Oconee or Clarke counties can be difficult. Doing so in DeKalb County, an area used to influxes of refugees, is much easier.

“Once you get outside of DeKalb, there are fewer resources,” Hoffer said.

Job opportunities, affordable housing, a welcoming environment, transportation and access to refugee services are essential for any community wanting to welcome refugees, Mixon said.

Maybe it will take his family some time to fully adjust, Sarmad said, but he’s found the transition to Oconee County quite easy. And now, his children even have their cousins around. Baker, his 15-year-old son, said learning at North Oconee High School has been pleasant. English-as-a-second-language teachers and fellow students have been helpful.

Sarmad Edrees didn’t think refugees constitute any drain on Georgia. Iraqis, at least, have earned a spot in the U.S., he said.

“At least they accept us as refugees,” he said. “In Jordan, we didn’t have any choice. We couldn’t work. My kids had no right to go to school. Here, at least you can work like everyone else.”

58,179: Total refugees who came to U.S. in 2012
21,292: Refugee children who entered the U.S. in 2012
Main source countries in U.S.: Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Cuba
Refugee arrivals by County 2004-2013
Clarke: 25
Oconee: 6
Jackson: 21
Madison: 145
Walton: 63
Barrow: 25
DeKalb: 14,968
Gwinnett: 1,125
Georgia refugees by Origin 2004-13
Burma: 5,137
Bhutan: 4,379
Somalia: 3,145
Iraq: 1,737
Ethiopia: 889
Federal Funding for refugees:
$12,210,949 in total federal funding
$979,993 in private and corporate donations
$5,450,000 in cash and medical assistance
$2,652,963 in social services
$1,632,980 in targeted assistance
$152,790 refugee preventative health grant
$550,000 refugee school impact grant
$4,006,200 match grant program
Sources: U.S Office of Immigration Statistics, Georgia Coalition of Refugee Stakeholders, U.S Office of Refugee Resettlement