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Sequestration Hits San Diego Refugee Resettlement Agencies

Habibo, a Somali refugee, writes:

Photo by Habibo, The AjA Project

Above: Habibo, a Somali refugee, writes: "The first day I came to U.S.A. was hard for me. Leave my sister in Kenya. My friends. Airplane. Leaving them forever. Excited We came in San Diego and I was scared. The first day school was scary because I did not see white people before."

Across-the-board federal budget cuts are being felt locally by resettlement agencies and the refugees they help.

Local refugee service providers are beginning to feel the pinch of sequestration. The 5 percent, across-the-board spending cuts went into effect in March, slicing into federal spending by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

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Locally, that means organizations that smooth the transition for refugees have less money to help them find work.

Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Director Michael McKay said his organization has lost about $15,000 for a program that places refugees into jobs within four months of arrival. It matches federal dollars with local funds to cover caseworkers and programming that get refugees into the workforce, usually in San Diego's hospitality industry.

McKay said the $15,000 would put about seven people through the program. He emphasized the importance of such early employment programs. Initial aid from the U.S. Department of State that helps refugees establish households and get on their feet typically lasts through the first three months; health coverage lasts for eight months. That aid has not been cut.

McKay and Bob Montgomery, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego, said they're concerned resettlement services will sustain deeper cuts later this year, when federal agencies release their fiscal year 2014 budgets.

The uncertainty comes as hundreds of thousands of Syrians flee civil war. The U.S. has not yet opened its doors to those refugees, but could soon.

"We hope there will be continued support for it, to invest in the folks," McKay said. "Because they become contributing and productive members of the community rather quickly when there is that support."

Montgomery said the IRC has also seen cuts to its employment program. The Alliance for African Assistance confirmed that it, too, has been impacted by sequestration.

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