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Not Enough Help For Growing Refugee Population

Aired 11/7/11 on KPBS News.

The federal government's efforts to resettle the refugees has left some schools, hospitals and other local services overwhelmed.

— On a recent Friday morning, students of Iraqi descent practiced phrases they might need for a job interview in the language lab at Cuyamaca College.

One student – a thin young man, dressed in hip clothes – speaks into a computer microphone: “Why should I give you the job? I’m hard working and work full-time.”

He’s lucky to be in a class. English as a Second Language, or ESL, courses, are in high demand at Cuyamaca, which is located in San Diego's East County.

"We had enough students on the wait list to double the program," said Alicia Muñoz, Cuyamaca's ESL coordinator. In fact, over the past two years, the wait list for ESL classes has increased by nearly 14-times.

Most of the demand comes from recently arrived Iraqi refugees. More than 13,000 Iraqis have relocated to San Diego County since 2005, making it one of the largest refugee communities in the country.

ESL classes are maxed out at Cuyamaca College. The majority of the students a...
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Above: ESL classes are maxed out at Cuyamaca College. The majority of the students are Iraqi refugees.

But budget cuts – affecting community colleges across the state – have forced schools to cancel classes in many subjects, including ESL. At the same time, the demand for these classes has skyrocketed. And it's not just community colleges that are feeling the strain.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob has gotten an earful of concerns from elementary schools, hospitals and other public institutions in her district. They all say that they don't have the funds to address refugee needs, especially on shrinking budgets.

"There have not been adequate resources available to serve this population," Jacob said.

The supervisor recently hosted a meeting of refugee resettlement officials and service providers to discuss the problem. There, local school district officials said they need an additional $3.4 million to hire teachers for English learner programs. They also want more counselors to work with refugee students traumatized by war and displacement.

Hospital representatives also showed up with concerns.

"From a health care perspective, we're spending a lot of dollars — especially the community clinics — paying for interpreters," Michele Tarbet, CEO of Sharp Grossmont Hospital, said after the meeting.

Tarbet said the government doesn't provide reimbursement for interpreters. She also said the hospital is seeing a large increase in uninsured patients, many of them refugees.

Alan Tyari, 25, works on his English language skills at Cuyamaca College. He ...
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Above: Alan Tyari, 25, works on his English language skills at Cuyamaca College. He hopes to open his own beauty salon one day.

After the meeting, the head of the federal office of refugee resettlement admitted he was caught off guard by the size of the problem. He didn't offer any immediate solutions, but conversations between Jacob’s office and service providers are ongoing.

Back at Cuyamaca college, Iraqi ESL students are thrilled to be taking steps toward integrating into their new home. Alan Tyari, 25, fled Iraq with his family in 2002. They lived in Lebanon for seven years before coming to the U.S.

Tyari said he wants to take professional English and eventually open a beauty salon.

"I want to do business for myself," he said.

Tyari currently gets unemployment benefits, because he recently lost his job. In fact, refugees are given some government benefits – help with health insurance, rent and food – for the first eight months in the U.S.

After that, many are on their own, in an economy with few job prospects. The lack of jobs probably contributes to the demand for ESL classes. To keep the benefits coming, refugees have to show they're taking steps towards self-sufficiency.

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Avatar for user '87marine'

87marine | November 7, 2011 at 9:45 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

This points out very clearly the immigration problems we face today. More coming and getting benefits (handouts) for years. All they have to do is show they are looking for work, etc. Here's the solution: Stop allowing this unfettered immigration in the first place. We owe these peole diddly squat. It's getting rediculous and something must be done to stop it. But, our cowardly politicians won't do it unless we press them.

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Avatar for user 'diazubs01'

diazubs01 | November 7, 2011 at 10:46 a.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

I have an idea, how about we stop caring if they get jobs or not and send them home!! I am so disgusted by this, they come here suck us dry of our peoples benefits and then they take our jobs!! Have you been to a Ross store in the last 3 years? Not 1 single American! All Kurds and Russians, I am disgusted! We certainly would not be afforded the same if we went to their countries!

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 7, 2011 at 1:04 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

LOL Hey, Diassubs01, maybe if we stopped invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Haiti, you wouldn't have anyting to complain about!

Maybe you should take it up with the policymakers.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 7, 2011 at 1:05 p.m. ― 5 years, 4 months ago

No, Jarbottom, this is not about immigration. This is about refugees.

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