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'I am desperate:' Refugee says resettling in Atlanta came with struggles

Lautaro Grinspan, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

According to research out of Georgia State University’s Prevention Research Center (PRC), navigating a new environment and culture is a significant stressor.

“I don’t think that most Americans understand just how incredibly hard it is to build your whole life over again,” Mary Helen O’Connor, deputy director of the PRC, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year.

The federal government places refugees across the country through a partnership with ten non-profit resettlement agencies, which in turn work with a network of about 350 local affiliates. Federal funds are paid to the agencies to cover temporary benefits to refugees, including assistance with rent, as well as finance services such as cultural orientation, enrollment of children in school, help with job-seeking and finding English classes, and case management during refugees’ first months in the U.S.

“We have 240 days to make refugees financially self-sufficient,” said Vanessa Russell, CEO of Catholic Charities Atlanta, a local resettlement agency and the organization matched with Briceño Peña. “That means that, within those 240 days, they can pay their own bills and be independent. That’s everyone’s goal. That’s what we’re shooting for.”

Briceño Peña says she shared that goal. But she felt the odds were stacked against her given her lack of English skills and transportation. She says the refugee resettlement program didn’t do enough to help her feel supported and get her bearings after coming to metro Atlanta.

Now, she says she has no money to pay for bus fare to move around town and fears she may be imminently evicted from her Clarkston apartment.


“Emotionally, I am very spent,” Briceño Peña said. “It’s a wonder I haven’t gone to jump off a bridge and put an end to all this.”

More refugees coming in

One of Briceño Peña’s complaints is that, according to her, Catholic Charities was difficult to reach when she had questions she wanted to ask or issues to report. She says there were aspects of the refugee program that were never fully explained to her, and the Catholic Charities staffer who was her main point of contact didn’t speak fluent Spanish.

According to Russell, it is unrealistic to expect case workers to be available around the clock.


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