New Americans: Refugees in Erie

Categories:  Opinion    Features
Wednesday, June 24th, 2015 at 10:15 AM
New Americans: Refugees in Erie by Katie Chriest
Photo by Brad Triana

He’s probably 20, this young man sitting next to me at the Federal Court House. On his lap are two phones, both photo-op ready. His brother becomes a U.S. citizen today.

Ian, we’ll call him, is soft-spoken and engaging. Clearly excited to be here for his brother. Originally from Somalia, he endured the citizenship process already, so he knows exactly what his brother is going through.

The ceremony begins. Local community leaders welcome these 50 new citizens with brief remarks. I am keenly aware of Ian’s presence beside me and try to hear the speeches as he might.

My own American identity is fraught with ambivalence. I am so unabashedly proud of much of what our country stands for. I am so undeniably ashamed of many of its actualities. It is with a heavily complex heart that I listen to speakers proclaiming this country as the land of liberty and opportunity, when so much injustice prevails.

One speaker is Walter Harf of the Rotary Club, a classic American gentleman. He quotes JFK’s most famous line. Beside me, Ian beams. He whispers along with Harf: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” I get choked up.

It seems that some residents of cities like Erie, where many refugees resettle, assume immigrants only concern themselves with the first half of JFK’s quote. But talk to a few of them. Get to know their stories. Hear their hunger to give back, to contribute, to belong. It becomes evident that the majority of them are asking what they can do for their new country.

Too often, the answer is, “not much.”

Erie didn’t get so many refugees by accident. Nor is our immigrant community draining the city’s resources. We have earned Preferred Community status, and receive federal money through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to welcome refugees here, thanks to our cost of living, housing and transportation, our entry-level jobs and receptive schools. 

“Not a penny comes out of the Erie budget to help these refugees,” states Paul Jericho, Senior Program Officer for Refugee Services at the Multicultural Community Resource Center (MCRC). “There’s still that misconception that they don’t pay taxes. They do. They’re also not taking our jobs. They produce more jobs than they take by pumping money into the economy. They buy houses, cars, and fix places up.”

Additionally, in a recent article in the Erie Times-News, Ed Grode, a board member for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), highlighted that though Erie’s population is declining rapidly, resettled refugees have steadied census numbers, positively impacting the amount of state and federal money the city receives.

USCRI works locally through the International Institute of Erie (IIE) to implement the Preferred Communities program, in association with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The program selects cities “that offer newly arrived refugees excellent opportunities to achieve early employment and sustained economic independence … [and to] also engage local residents in becoming active participants in the newcomers’ integration.”

While several sources I spoke to agreed that Erie is a deserving Preferred Community, providing supported entry to resettled life, “Erie should be doing a better job integrating and capitalizing on the refugee/immigrant community,” summarized one.

But wait. Erie has it bad, already. Why should our economically-strapped town — or our debt-ridden America, for that matter — worry about people who aren’t even from here? It’s not our fault they had to flee their countries.

This argument might hold, if we didn’t live in a country whose transnational corporations, trade agreements, empirical tendencies, and dubious wars weren’t, at times, somewhat to blame for many of the circumstances that have caused newcomers to flee their homelands. In mid-June, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported, “As wars and persecution escalate worldwide, one out of every 122 people on the planet is a refugee, seeking asylum, or internally displaced.” 

Most of us haven’t witnessed these atrocities of this magnitude firsthand. But they have. Don’t they deserve the same chances we’ve been given? Isn’t it worth seeing what they have to offer?

If you consider Ferki Ferati, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Ferati and his family arrived in Erie in 1999, as Albanian refugees from Kosovo. Today, he’s Vice President and Executive Director of the Jefferson Educational Society.

Ferati says that for the most part, working-age resettled refugees “don’t get out of the blue-collar, minimum-wage jobs. All their hopes are in their kids.”

Ferati is exceptional, and his success story is unusual on many levels. But maybe if more sustained support existed, it wouldn’t have to be.

“Resources like the MCRC and IIE are rare. Erie does a nice job that way, and it’s manageable.” Overall, Ferati believes that Erie succeeds “as a startup community, and does a great job of getting people ready to take American life on. But as soon as they’re ready, they’re not needed.

“A lot of my friends trying to get to the next level have had to move,” he adds. “Absolutely they would have stayed if the opportunities were here. Erie is doing a disservice to itself by not taking advantage of all of these people’s talents and gifts.”

This sentiment is echoed by filmmaker and storyteller Maitham Basha-Agha, who came to Erie as an Iraqi refugee in 2000. His documentary, The New Americans, available on YouTube, showcases obstacles he and other Erie newcomers have faced via three individuals’ stories.

I reached Basha-Agha by email in Botswana, where he’s volunteering with the Peace Corps and “also continuing to document people's stories.” Today, “We have the largest refugee migration ever,” he explains, “but many people do not understand that we didn't have a choice but to leave home. A majority of the refugees you meet have witnessed some hardship — father killed, uncle killed, house or village burned down. These are just a few [stories] I have heard and seen.”

“But when people relocate to a different country,” he adds, “the struggle really starts. Many refugees have completed education in their countries, but most of the time their degree is not recognized because it is not a western education. You have refugees who used to be doctors, businesspeople, and lawyers, who have to start over by working at a gas station or do general cleaning for minimum wage.”Refugees make up a significant part of Erie’s population.

One couple I spoke with fit Basha-Agha’s description. Well-educated, worldly, and successful, they have backgrounds in law and communications, with extensive experience as human rights activists. They were forced to leave Africa after the husband was kidnapped and the safety of their family was threatened. As active jobseekers, they requested anonymity, but shared with me some of their experiences.

“We thought if we worked hard, living in the US would be as we lived [in Africa]. We were pretty shocked.”

Unlike Ferati’s family, this family was not recruited, per se. But through research, they have come to understand a sort of global brokering system where localities attract refugees to fill low-wage jobs.

“The UNHCR handled everything,” he explains. The family was offered no choice regarding their new home. “At the airport, we still didn’t know where we were headed.”

Both are now grateful U.S. citizens. “It’s a privilege to be here, but we were a bit misinformed,” he clarifies. “We thought there would be no need to go back to school. But after getting here and being told ‘get to work,’ we were amazed to see what was available and what they paid.”

Nevertheless, he was working by their third week here. Soon they’d both been hired, but “within that system,” they explain, “you feel imprisoned from evolving because once you start getting that minimum wage paycheck, your food stamps and assistance dries up.”

“We were misled,” he summarizes. “The whole system seems to be tricky.”

Of course, the system is tricky for millions of native-born Americans, too. But when systemic socioeconomic disparities are compounded by cultural barriers, ethnic suspicion, and racism, “tricky” can become “trapping”.

“Erie is not always a very friendly place to diversity,” another source states, “not only towards the refugee community but towards all minorities.”

In fact, a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article highlights a study ranking 230 “most and least diverse” places in the U.S.

In last place? Erie, Pa.

Training employers regarding minority hiring would help greatly, contends one source. “Skilled labor doesn’t have to speak English or be a certain ethnicity. [Employers] need a format in which skilled labor can learn duties they have to perform without English, and a better understanding that a diverse place is a good place. Somebody else making money doesn’t take it away from you. You grow when everyone grows.”

According to the USCRI, “Refugees enter the United States with authorization to work.” In fact, tax incentives are even available for many businesses who hire refugees.

But this still doesn’t solve the problem of thousands of gifted people — often with advanced degrees and invaluable work experience — stuck in entry-level work.

One source describes a local plastics manufacturer where “people work like machines. That’s what they are. You can’t find Americans who will do that job. Pretty much everyone in there is a refugee or immigrant.”

“With a degree,” he adds, “there’s much more opportunity, but so many loans. Still, living with a loan is better than living with $7.25 an hour.

Accepting debt is one hurdle that many newcomers must overcome, starting with the bill for their plane ticket. The couple I spoke with had to sign a promissory note for $4,000 to the government on their second day in the U.S.

Ferati likewise recalls his family paying back their ticket costs urgently, thanks partly to an ingrained fear of governments and debt.

Ferati, his brother, and another young Albanian man were recruited to attend then Mercyhurst College. “We got grants and presidential scholarships,” he explains, “but we left with loans like everyone else.”

The couple I spoke with arrived with degrees, but — as Basha-Agha noted — they weren’t acceptable here. Recognizing that anything less than a B.A. would vastly limit them, they pursued four-year degrees anew, and now face the very American fact of crippling student debt. “The thing is, we want to go back to school, to get back to the mainstream American life and the American dream. And the U.S. program [for refugees] provides assistance, but only for one year. What is that designed for? A technical school. So you’re channeled into the type of job that leaves you stuck at the bottom with minimum wage.”

“They tell us to go to the end of the line,” he summarizes proverbially. “But they don’t even allow us to be at the end of the line properly.”

Still, some bright spots exist. “Porreco College has eliminated barriers like testing and level of English to help a lot of our people attend college,” says Jericho. “We see it as a wonderful opportunity. Now, they can cover the first two years of college without debt.” So far, Porreco offers four associate degrees, and has even accepted some people with foreign high school diplomas. Last year, about 32 people took advantage of this chance.

Additionally, some foreign education credentials can be re-certified here, Jericho adds, and Penn State Behrend has accepted many refugee students provisionally.

But, he recognizes, “the first generation has a more difficult time. It requires a lot of patience. And the better educated often do better in bigger cities.”

Sadly, that seems to be the case for native Erieites, too.

Most options still don’t address the value of newcomers’ native cultures. But one exception is Old Songs New Opportunities (OSNO). Run by the Erie Art Museum and Folk Art Director Kelly Armor, OSNO “trains former refugees who now live in Erie to work in early learning centers and to use their traditional children’s songs on the job.”

 “We’re treating their traditional culture as a resource,” explains Armor. “So many Americans think of culture as that exotic stuff that foreigners do. Our graduates train Americans about their own culture.”

Armor just returned from an early childhood education conference, where “cultural competence and diversity was a thread throughout. But the idea of training new Americans to use their culture and work with children … it’s not happening anywhere else; it’s amazing, because it makes so much sense!”

She also wishes hiring made more sense. “Anyone without a high school diploma is out of luck,” she reasons. “But many women never had the chance to go to school in their home country. How is a woman who can speak three languages somehow not employable because she doesn’t have a diploma? Couldn’t we waive that for certain people?”

Erie has earned Preferred Community status, and receives federal money through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to welcome refugees here, thanks to our cost of living, housing and transportation, our entry-level jobs and receptive schools.

“New Americans are working so hard and don’t take anything for granted,” Armor adds. “American workers [who work alongside newcomers] have been buoyed by realizing how much they have. There’s so much talk about how we need to be diverse. But it’s an unknown to hire people whose English isn’t perfect."

Everyone I spoke with shared the same frustrations regarding newcomer upward mobility. But the underlying fear of the unknown might be an even bigger — yet more solvable — problem. “People are afraid to embrace new things,” one said. “They think they’re giving up themselves. But you have to empty your mind and be open to whatever. Being restricted to one ideal is a big mistake.”

Armor offers this simple advice: “Go to [a newcomer-owned] market. Go to the restaurants. People are afraid to walk in Iraqi markets, and think ‘They don’t want me in there.’ But they want customers! And they’re often happy to say, ‘oh, why don’t you try this?’”

In its newcomer community, Erie has been given a valuable — yet largely unopened — gift. Isn’t it time we tried asking what they can do for their new country?

Katie Chriest can be contacted at

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