For Political Refugees, Hurricanes Pose a Special Threat

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, it hit one of the country's biggest gateways for refugees -- a population that has already had to rebuild their lives and will now struggle to do it again.
by | September 8, 2017
Houston's Muslim community, an estimated 200,000 people, has opened many of its community centers and sent hundreds of volunteers to serve food and deliver donations. (AP/Jay Reeves)

The Barakzai family did what many Houstonians did when Hurricane Harvey set its sights on the nation’s fourth-largest city in late August. The family of five -- two brothers, one sister, their mother and grandmother -- stayed home and rode out the worst of the massive hurricane, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on parts of greater Houston and flooded the Barakzais' apartment.

“We went to the second floor to my friend’s house,” says Mariam Barakzai, a 23-year-old Walmart cashier, about how the family was forced to move in the middle of the storm.

“We were scared because this was a lot of water,” says Muhammad Barakzai, 19, one of Mariam’s two younger brothers.

The family survived, but their only car was damaged, their apartment is now unlivable and Mariam, the family’s sole breadwinner, is temporarily without work. The Walmart location where she's employed has been closed since the storm.

The damages suffered by the Barakzais were common to families all over the Houston area. But the Barakzais face an additional hurdle: They're political refugees.

The Barakzai family arrived from Afghanistan two years ago, fleeing a country where their father was murdered and the family was marked for the same fate. In Houston, the Barakzai family found a city accustomed to welcoming thousands of refugees each year.

For more than four decades, Houston has been a hub for new refugees and residents who have been granted political asylum. In the 1970s, Vietnamese refugees fled war and made Houston their new home. More recently Somali, Afghani, Iraqi and Syrian refugees have escaped conflicts in their home countries to seek a new life in the city. In the past 40 years, more than 70,000 refugees have come to Houston, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Between 2010 and 2015, Texas led the nation in the number of refugees accepted, with more than 41,000. In 2016, Texas was second only to California in the number of refugees accepted.

As Houston works to rebuild, the city’s refugee and asylee population will face a unique set of challenges that make it harder for them to access aid and resume their normal lives.

“Refugees literally arrive without any resources, and they build everything from scratch,” says Basel Mousslly, resettlement supervisor at Refugee Services of Texas.

Now, they must do it all over again.

Houston is transit-poor, car-dependent and sprawling. Greater Houston is spread out over more than 10,000 square miles -- larger than the state of New Jersey. Mariam Barakzai’s car was one of more than 1 million automobiles that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey, according to the automotive data firm Black Book. For any Houstonian, getting around the city carless is a challenge. But it can be an especially daunting task for refugees.

“They often work in places where transportation doesn’t go, or they might work a night shift after public transportation shuts down,” says Mousslly.

Meanwhile, much of the city's road network has been damaged or flooded, and many roads remain closed. Many businesses are also either closed or operating on truncated schedules. Those closures impact residents across the city but especially lower-wage workers, a group that disproportionately includes refugees.

“You lost wages for a week, you lost power for the week and you now have to replace the refrigerator because it was damaged in the storm,” says Dan Stoecker, CEO of the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, which helps refugees, asylees and new immigrants resettle in Houston.

On Thursday, Congress approved $15 billion in aid for the area impacted by Harvey. Nearly half the money will replenish FEMA accounts that had been drawn down since the disaster struck Aug. 25.

Refugees who have just arrived in the past few months will still be able to draw on federal aid targeted to their resettlement in Houston. For the rest, they must apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and FEMA funds to replace lost wages. TANF funds are capped at $408 per month, according to the Texas state Department of Health and Human Services.

“Texas has a very low level of public assistance,” says Randy Capps, director of research for the Migration Policy Institute. “[As for] public housing, there is not enough of it, and refugees often can’t get it.”

The funds from FEMA will take months to distribute and include a complicated application process that many refugees don't make it through. FEMA applications are routinely denied, according to Stoecker, but the denial letters state that applicants can and should reapply. Still, Stoecker says, many refugees take the initial denial as a final decision.

Caseworkers can help refugees navigate the process. But in the wake of a disaster on the scale of Harvey, client needs may far exceed the capacity of the organizations assigned to serving refugees and asylees.

“Because so many people are still learning how to navigate the system and so many have language-access issues, they are not accessing information,” Stoecker says. “We are going to need capacity to help. We are going to need help with case management.”

Like many refugee families and other residents impacted by Harvey, the Barakzais are now debating whether to relocate elsewhere or stay and rebuild. Mariam’s two brothers want to leave Houston and head north for Dallas.

“I’m worried this is going to happen again,” Muhammad says.

But Muhammad is still in high school. Mariam is the only person working in her family, and jobs are not easy to come by. As bad as the damage has been in Houston, many of the refugees won’t leave the city, according to Stoecker.

“This is where they are learning to put down roots. This is where their family is, and this is the community they know,” he says. “The majority of people will usually stay like they did after Hurricane Ike” in 2008.

For the refugees who do decide to move, it will likely be to places such as Dallas or Minneapolis -- cities that have taken in large populations of refugees and already have thriving immigrant communities.

“It’s not unusual for refugees to move if they find someone they know in another city,” says Capps. “This is an issue of resilience. They have had to start over a few times.”

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