Another difficult journey

Refugees and asylum-seekers face daunting challenges building new lives in New Mexico

By: - Monday September 13, 2021 6:00 am

Another difficult journey

Refugees and asylum-seekers face daunting challenges building new lives in New Mexico

By: - 6:00 am

A cluster of five low-income neighborhoods in Albuquerque’s southeast Heights was designated the International District in 2009, in part to reflect the area’s nearly 50-year history as a frequent first landing for refugees and other immigrants unable to afford the cost of housing elsewhere in the city. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

A cluster of five low-income neighborhoods in Albuquerque’s southeast Heights was designated the International District in 2009, in part to reflect the area’s nearly 50-year history as a frequent first landing for refugees and other immigrants unable to afford the cost of housing elsewhere in the city. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

Mahboob Pannah remembers well the fresh shock awaiting up to 400 refugees and asylum-seekers — many of them families — due to be resettled in New Mexico in the wake of the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan. 

Before her own visa application was approved and she finally joined her husband in Albuquerque in 2002, Pannah had essentially no exposure to the world outside of her isolated upbringing in Afghanistan. She was pregnant at the time of her arrival and described herself as feeling lost in the dark with overwhelm. “Electricity, the TV, the internet — everything was very, very new to me.”

With a baby on the way and only her husband to guide her, Pannah said her acclimation was long and arduous. Today she’s a community organizer and case manager with the New Mexico Asian Family Center, and she said local assistance for refugees is more comprehensive and available compared with when she first arrived. Yet the ongoing reality of welcoming people desperate for a better life is that another difficult journey begins the moment they’re approved for resettlement here. Direct service providers say that means the broader community can also adapt in ways that ensure newcomers find success and wellness here without being forced into poverty

Small comforts

Refugees and others seeking asylum who are selected for transfer into the U.S. first endure a procedural ordeal. They undergo a series of biometric and biographical background checks by federal intelligence and security agents, as well as health screenings and medical procedures that now include vaccination against COVID-19. Once they’ve passed those and other requirements, Afghan refugees are transferred to temporary housing at eight military bases across the country — one of them is Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo where their resettlement approvals and destination will be finalized.

Lutheran Family Services in Albuquerque is the nonprofit contracted by the federal government to act as the primary resettlement service provider for refugees and asylees who specify New Mexico as their destination. The agency’s Community Engagement Coordinator Lydia Monte said that since news of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan broke, the organization has received an outpouring of offers for support from the community, including from members of the already well-established Afghan population.

Lutheran Family Services in Albuquerque. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

“All of the interpreters that we work with who are from Afghanistan have been reaching out to us and within their own communities,” Monte said. “They’re really stepping up with providing donations, volunteering to interpret, volunteering to prepare Afghan meals when they arrive so they can have culturally appropriate food. We’ve had local restaurants reach out who have either Afghan owners or staff, offering to provide food or employment.” Several former refugees are themselves part of Lutheran Family Services case management staff who greet new arrivals at the airport and help them get oriented in their new living spaces.

Small comforts go a long way upon arrival. Refugees have just 90 days before they’re expected to be self-sufficient. Essentials like cash assistance and housing vouchers expire, so case managers also assist with applications for necessary public benefits like food assistance, Medicaid and child care. Working alongside case managers at LFS are housing and employment specialists who secure refugees a place to live and help them sustain gainful work. “We currently have a staff of 14 in New Mexico, plus several interns, and we’re also hiring for a few positions, so our team will continue to grow over the next couple of months,” Monte said.

Housing is hard to find

Last year LFS received a grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement “to identify barriers that refugee families are facing to achieve self-sufficiency and to leverage funding to address those barriers,” Monte said. So far the most daunting ones exist in some of the most basic domains of daily life: affordable housing, reliable transportation, accessible child care and literacy. Monte said housing stands out as especially urgent. 

“It has become increasingly difficult to find even available housing, much less affordable housing,” says Monte. “Our case managers are working their tails off trying to secure apartments before families are arriving, so we can have a home for them ready to go. But that’s just been harder and harder to do.” LFS is reaching out to property management companies and landlords to advocate for housing these families, but Monte said it remains a daunting challenge.

State and city officials sounded confident about their capacity to meet the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers. Angela Medrano, deputy secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Department, said her first concern upon hearing that Afghan refugees were soon to arrive was ensuring adequate translation services are available as people access state services. When asked if she feels confident that state personnel are both bureaucratically and culturally prepared for work with refugees, Medrano said her office’s Albuquerque staff are especially accustomed to working with diverse populations. “This is what they do,” she said.

At the City of Albuquerque’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, director Michelle Melendez described Mayor Tim Keller’s administration as well-attuned to the needs highlighted by refugee service providers and community organizers. “All of our office staff come from community organizations, and we’re trying to change the city from the inside,” Melendez said. The ORR, which formed two years ago as directed by the mayor’s office, has expanded language access across city departments so that new residents who need anything, from a library card to enrollment in paratransit bus service, can access it with the help of culturally sensitive staff, Melendez said.

Experience and knowledge

University of New Mexico Associate Professor of Sociology Jessica Goodkind has a long history of working with refugees. She said while the public’s perception of them as a vulnerable population can be helpful for mobilizing needed resources and support for their arrival, it can also minimize and detract from the experiences and knowledge of newcomers.

It was with those life experiences and knowledge in mind that Goodkind and graduate student Ann Githinji launched the annual Refugee Well-being Project in 2006. The program pairs undergraduate students with refugee and immigrant families for learning circles and student advocacy that supports participants as they pursue goals they’ve identified. 

A related nonprofit tied to the wellness project, United Voices for Newcomer Rights, launched in 2017. Now with four full-time staff and several part-timers, all of whom came to New Mexico as refugees from across the world, UVNR provides assistance such as language interpretation and translation services, and mentoring to refugees undertaking goals that require more one-on-one time and guidance. 

“A lot of the bilingual community ends up doing a lot of work for free — they want to help everyone they can — but they’re also working other jobs and trying to survive,” Goodkind said. “These are now people with good-paying jobs who can take the lead, who know what their communities want and need.” 

Goodkind said building partnerships with Spanish-speaking immigrants and organizations throughout New Mexico has been another key component of the Refugee Well-being Project, as there’s a pervasive public perception that refugees have it easier than other immigrants. In fact many of their experiences — persecution, trauma, violence — are profoundly similar. 

“What we’ve really seen over these past four years is that everyone who participates talks about how much they’ve learned from each other,” Goodkind said.

New Mexico should build on that strength. We have such a big immigrant population and this long history. We can really use that to welcome and support refugees, as well as build those connections and solidarities.

– Jessica Goodkind

A former refugee resettled in Albuquerque after her family fled Afghanistan when she was a child. She asked to remain anonymous, as she still has family at risk there. She said she’s been thinking about how the Afghans soon to arrive likely didn’t even have time to say goodbye to their loved ones. 

Providing overwhelmed new arrivals with basic essentials like food, shelter and money is the right thing to do, she said, adding that she thinks it’s important to provide counseling to refugees with people who speak their native languages, “because they witnessed such a horrifying scene. Most of them will be struggling emotionally and culturally.” 

She emphasized that adequate training on cultural sensitivity and diversity is needed for both refugees and personnel who work with them. “Challenging for both, but necessary.” 

The community should think about how to be welcoming in long-term ways, she added, so that newcomers know they’re not alone as they try to feel at home again.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Margaret Wright
Margaret Wright

Margaret Wright is a freelance journalist whose previous work has appeared at the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Political Report, Santa Fe Reporter, KUNM News and Popula, among other local outlets now shuttered. Homesickness besets her if she’s outside of the high desert for too long.