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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

ATLANTA — In late October, Carola Briceño Peña sent a voice message to the local case worker tasked with guiding her through the resettlement process in the U.S.

The Venezuelan refugee was on the verge of tears.

“I am desperate,” she recorded herself saying while waiting at a bus stop near her new Clarkston apartment. She was hoping to head downtown but was unsure how the MARTA system worked.

“I’m not a person that can spend the entire day just looking at the wall with nothing to do. I need to move around, I need to do things and I don’t have anything to do here, I don’t have anybody to speak with. No one explains anything to me, no one tells me anything. I need help.”

Briceño Peña is navigating the same challenges anyone newly arrived to the U.S. might face, including a language barrier, social isolation and a disorienting lack of understanding about her new home. There are additional clouds in the horizon: Briceño Peña’s sole source of support, her immigration case worker, prematurely cut ties after the nonprofit that employed her found Briceño Peña uncollaborative – a characterization the Venezuelan national rejects.

Briceño Peña worked as a journalist back in her homeland, but was forced to leave because of the Venezuelan authoritarian regime’s crackdown on dissenters and independent journalists ― a tactic of repression that is becoming increasingly indiscriminate as elections near. After lengthy rounds of vetting by the U.S. government, she was cleared to legally come to the country through the refugee resettlement program.

She arrived in Atlanta last October. Currently in a process of expansion under the Biden administration, the refugee program is aimed at vulnerable people who face persecution in their home countries. Foreign nationals who receive refugee status are eligible for U.S. permanent residence — a green card — and then U.S. citizenship.

Briceño Peña says she was relieved when she made it to safety in the U.S. But she soon discovered that starting a new life in Atlanta as a refugee came with its own slate of difficulties — something that she feels is testing her just as much as the circumstances she was forced to flee in Latin America.

“I thought I would have protection and peace of mind. But I haven’t had peace of mind,” Briceño Peña said.

That’s not an uncommon experience.

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.

“We are in the field. We’re not sitting at our desk managing cases. We are taking people to doctor’s appointments. We are in their house. We are taking their kids for school enrollment. Yesterday we had staff at the airport at midnight picking people up. It never stops. So yes, sometimes it is hard to get in touch with us,” she said.


Case workers are increasingly swamped.

The refugee program underwent years of cuts and disinvestment under the Trump administration, which characterized refugees as a security threat despite the background checks they are subject to. But now, the refugee program is growing again. In the first six months of the fiscal year, the U.S. has welcomed nearly 50,000 refugees, 1,736 of whom came to Georgia. That’s according to newly published U.S. Department of State data. In contrast, the Trump administration admitted roughly 64,000 over the course of three years.

The program’s expansion is being felt by Catholic Charities, which is struggling to recruit new staffers to meet demand for its services. There are three other refugee resettlement agencies in metro Atlanta, all of whom will be feeling the crunch of the Biden administration’s target of resettling 125,000 refugees this year, the most in three decades.

In February alone, Catholic Charities staff picked up 88 refugees at the airport. According to Russell, a “normal” month brings about 30 new refugees.

“It’s extremely challenging,” she said. “We’re slammed.”

‘A tough pill to swallow’

Briceño Peña says she became concerned about her situation as soon as she arrived in Atlanta, when she discovered that Catholic Charities had signed a lease under her name for a $1,150-a-month apartment she wasn’t sure she would be able to afford once the rent assistance ran out. She also reportedly found the place empty of all but the most basic of furnishings.

Russell says that is normal.

According to her, the agency prefers to furnish apartments gradually with donated items, to earmark more of the cash assistance they receive per refugee to cover rent. Russell says resettlement agencies try to find apartments that are as affordable as possible and in communities with at least some public transportation. Leases may be signed under refugees’ names, and not the nonprofit’s, to avoid establishing a relationship of dependency.

“We wouldn’t put it in our name because we’re trying to make sure they understand they have an obligation to pay rent,” Russell said.

The nonprofit leader says that successful refugee resettlement sometimes means the refugee must take low-paying jobs at places like chicken processing plants soon after their arrival to get them onto a path to self-sufficiency. The hope is they will eventually move into more fulfilling jobs once they learn more English or obtain professional licenses. Refugees with white-collar backgrounds can struggle with that transition.

“I am sure it’s a tough pill to swallow,” Russell said. “But this is not your forever life. This is the starting-over point. And sometimes that’s hard to adjust your mind to. I get that. But, you know, this is your chance at a new life. And it’s a very prescribed program.”

In Briceño Peña’s view, “Refugees have no option but to be condemned to cheap labor.”

She says she has struggled to find a job because of bureaucratic delays in getting her work permit, and because of her lack of English and transportation.

Her relationship with Catholic Charities soured.

In December, just two months after she arrived, the agency sent Briceño Peña a letter informing her it would cease providing her services, even as it confirmed it would still pay for two more months of rent. There is no prescribed duration for how long refugees must receive services from resettlement agencies – the State Department notes agencies are responsible for providing services “for up to 90 days after arrival.”

Briceño Peña says Catholic Charities cut ties with her before she could get a cultural orientation or employment skills training.

According to Russell, the agency sometimes ends services early when issues arise with specific refugees and “it’s not working out cooperatively.” Russell said Catholic Charities asked the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) to audit Briceño Peña’s file to make sure the charity had handled her case properly, and PRM confirmed that it had.

Briceño Peña has tried to connect with other local refugee resettlement agencies to get services through them, but those efforts have proven fruitless. She thinks that the fact she wasn’t able to receive the same number of services as other refugees amounts to discrimination. She has appealed to state and federal agencies for help but has come out of those interactions empty handed. She reached out to the AJC and other outlets to tell her story.

“There are no mechanisms, no way for refugees to denounce irregularities and be listened to,” she said. “I never would have thought this could happen here.”

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