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Digital Equity Gap In Refugee Community Makes Recovering From Pandemic Challenging

From her El Cajon home, Alaa Taha checks in on school assignments for one of her sons, March 23, 2021.
Zoë Meyers
From her El Cajon home, Alaa Taha checks in on school assignments for one of her sons, March 23, 2021.

Growing up in Syria, Douha Alhalabi rarely had to use a computer, let alone Google. Back then and there, things were handled “in paper.”

Today her home is El Cajon, where she’s been trying to find work, attend college, apply for rental assistance — all online. It’s left her deeply frustrated.

When someone sent her to a “www dot” internet address, she didn’t know what “dot” meant and didn’t find the web page. When she tried to Google something, she didn’t know what exactly to type.


“It does damage my family, yes, because we have no idea how to use technology,” she said.

As with the thousands of other refugees who live in San Diego County, that “damage” has reverberated across Alhalabi’s life this past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She and her husband haven’t been able to work remotely. Telehealth appointments became impossible without a translator. Online unemployment and rental assistance applications were so daunting, she gave up figuring them out on her own. The family became vulnerable to exploitation by “professional” people, as Alhalabi called them — third parties who helped them fill out those “hard applications” for hefty fees.

Now, as vaccination rates rise and in-person schools and businesses reopen, many experiences that shifted online may stay that way. That puts some of the region’s refugees at risk of being shut out of the economic recovery, because they lack the digital skills and adequate internet access that are as essential to life in San Diego as understanding traffic rules and being proficient in English.

That digital inequity has also contributed to deep job losses in San Diego’s refugee communities. According to one nonprofit, the unemployment rate in the fall of 2020 among refugees was more than three times higher than the county average at that time: 22% versus 6.6%.

Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, is shown in this undated photo.
Homayra Yusufi
Homayra Yusufi, interim executive director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, is shown in this undated photo.

What’s next for those families? Perhaps eviction, perhaps not finding new jobs because of big gaps in their resumes, said Homayra Yusufi, the interim executive director of Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, a local community organizing, research and public policy nonprofit.

“I think it's going to definitely play out worse for those folks who have digital inequities,” she said.

These gaps could soon impact even more refugees in San Diego County. This month, President Joe Biden raised the limit on how many refugees the U.S. admits, more than quadrupling this year’s cap set by the Trump administration, from 15,000 to 62,500.

Community organizations say they are trying to help refugees by teaching digital literacy classes, donating computers, translating websites and converting their employees into internet navigation mentors.

Yusufi said her nonprofit and other groups are offering a “kind of patchwork relief, wherever we can.” That, she added, is because instead of making “real investments and foresight,” governments at all levels are underinvesting in refugee services. Nonprofits receive varying amounts of government funding to pay for some refugee programs but not enough to support the needs of all the people they serve.

“The fact that we rely on nonprofits to be providing basic services to the entire population, I think there's always going to be holes there, because we know nonprofits are also financially struggling,” Yusufi said. “There'll always be issues like that unless we can make that investment — unless the government, be it local, county, state, federal, can prioritize those things and actually put the budget behind it to address those issues.”

Refugees in San Diego County

Based on U.S. State Department figures, 109,428 refugees resettled in California from January 2002 through August 2020. Of those, nearly 30%, or 32,285 people, arrived in San Diego County.

None of these numbers account for the refugees who moved here after they were settled somewhere else. Nor do they count those who left. (The U.S. Census asks if someone is born abroad but not if someone is a refugee.)

The State Department figures also don’t show the number of refugees that transformed San Diego into a resettlement hub starting in the 1970s, following the end of the Vietnam War. Other world conflicts before 2002 led to more refugee migrations, including the Somali Civil War and the Gulf War.

As Ramah Awad, a community organizer with Majdal: The Arab Community Center of San Diego, sees it, nonprofits are filling gaps that the county government should be filling in its role to provide social services that improve the socioeconomic circumstances of those in need.

“Instead of it being embedded and integrated into the county's infrastructure, it's being outsourced to different nonprofits,” she said. “So I think there is a tension there. Who should be doing this work and is it sustainable?”

Such work is critical, she added, because families’ long-term stability hinges upon it.

Her conclusion: “If their access to applying to jobs, their access to classes for English language, if all of that is predicated on knowing how to fill out online forms, create online accounts, accessing a laptop — if all of that is predicated on digital access, then I think that it really is a steppingstone to being able to access all the other services that can get them to better socioeconomic standing in the longer term.”

Basic digital needs unmet

In the old days, before the pandemic, Abraham Tessema used to drive people to medical appointments and help them fill out applications.

“Most of them are farmers. They’ve never been in educational settings,” he said of the Etheopian and Eritrean families he works with at the Refugee Assistance Center in City Heights. “That's been a challenge — to even open a letter and read it and understand what it is saying. So they would bring it to us.”

During the pandemic his roles have been sharpened and focused into one: translating the internet. “The problem here is they cannot do the basic steps,” he said. “The language barrier comes first. They don't even understand what to do.”

Etleva Bejko, the director of Refugee and Immigration Services with Jewish Family Service of San Diego, a refugee resettlement agency, realized early in the pandemic that new immigrants must understand the internet in order to get updates about the fast changing situation.

“Imagine being new in a country, not understanding the language and on top of that a worldwide pandemic is happening,” Bejko said. “Digital literacy has become as important if not more important than any of the other topics that we require and teach in our cultural orientation.”

Etleva Bejko, head of refugee services for Jewish Family Service of San Diego, is shown in this undated photo.
Jewish Family Service of San Diego
Etleva Bejko, head of refugee services for Jewish Family Service of San Diego, is shown in this undated photo.

The agency joined a pilot program developed by its parent nonprofit, HIAS, where mentors who speak Ukrianian, Farsi or Pashto teach refugees how to use a computer for online banking, telehealth, technical skills and, in parallel, English.

Bejko said of one refugee: “When she started the pilot, she didn't even know how to turn the device on. And now she's independently using it.” The local program has 10 participants and will continue for five more months. So far, she said, participants’ reactions have been “very positive.”

For every refugee who gets help and training, hundreds don’t, service providers said.

“We're just not able to get to all of them,” said Awad, with the Majdal center, adding that she and a part-time worker help two to three families a week with digital access issues. About 250 families on their roster could use help, she said.

Tessema said his organization is helping 36 families, while 200 “desperately” need support. “This is in our eyes the people that we can see,” he added. “And there are other refugee groups, like the Congolese, the Rwandans. I see that they needed help. We haven't even touched that part yet.”

‘It's not for us’

Digital literacy and access are, on one hand, a “bottleneck,” Tessema said. Without them, people can’t access resources, jobs or information. On the other hand, for refugees specifically, digital equity is also tangled with other challenges: language, cultural differences, fragile finances, and unfamiliarity with systems and norms in the U.S.

When the pandemic pushed many of her interactions online, Alaa Taha, 28, a refugee from Syria, didn’t trust telemedicine. That, combined with her low confidence in her English abilities, led her to opt out of doctor appointments. She’s also felt overwhelmed by her two kids’ remote classes and her own college coursework in business administration.

Alaa Taha is photographed at her home in El Cajon, March 23, 2021.
Zoë Meyers
Alaa Taha is photographed at her home in El Cajon, March 23, 2021.

Twice since the pandemic began, she needed a doctor’s care for an acute health problem. Instead, she canceled both visits.

“It's not normal to talk with the doctor online and explain the pain, how do you feel, to the doctor. It should (be) the doctor sees the patient,” Taha said.

Dilkhwaz Ahmed, the executive director of License to Freedom, an El Cajon nonprofit that’s been helping Taha, has also seen people give up on vital economic support because they felt overwhelmed by requirements and unfamiliar, complex websites and software.

“By the end, they say, you know what? Forget about it. It's not for us,” Ahmed said.

She recalled a man who joked that a rental assistance application had to be for a job with the U.S. State Department because it was so complicated.

“This link, it's designed for American people who know the language and they know how to access the internet so they can fill it out and they can upload,” he told her. Then, he added, “You know what? This is not for me. This program is not designed for me.” He did not apply at the time, she added.

These scenarios point to the complexity of teaching and helping refugees and other immigrants navigate the digital chasms that have been torn open during the pandemic. Their problems go beyond slow internet, or not enough devices, or not understanding how to use Zoom. It’s all of those compounded by limited language ability and overlapping layers of unfamiliarity with digital tools and with how things work in the U.S.

Shatha Dahash, a former lawyer in Iraq, helps Alaa Taha go through legal paperwork at her home in El Cajon, March 23, 2021.
Zoë Meyers
Shatha Dahash, a former lawyer in Iraq, helps Alaa Taha go through legal paperwork at her home in El Cajon, March 23, 2021.

Shatha Dahash, once a lawyer in Iraq and now the case manager helping Taha, said language, technical competence and trust in systems go hand in hand.

When one is missing, Dahash said, “Everything will be hard.”

More dire than health, even in a pandemic, are family finances, service providers said. Without digital literacy and access to computers or adequate internet connections for remote work, many refugees have had trouble holding on to jobs or applying for new jobs. And for those who have lost work, the same tech barriers make it hard to apply for unemployment, food stamps or rental assistance.

Yusufi, with the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans in City Heights, said digital inequity will be less of a problem with schools reopening and things like in-person doctor visits picking up. But she’s wary of expecting things to go back to “normal.” In the post-pandemic economy, some jobs aren’t coming back and others will stay remote, she said.

“I think that the bigger issue for our communities is also what does that mean, particularly for their incomes, particularly for employment opportunities and being able to have enough to sustain a family,” she said.

The results so far are not encouraging for refugees, service providers said. When industries that typically employed refugees, such as hospitality, transportation, childcare and food service, let workers go last year because of stay-at-home orders, an instant impact of the digital gap was economic. Unable to work in person or remotely, refugees lost jobs.

A forthcoming report by Yusufi’s nonprofit, based on a survey last fall of 544 of the region’s refugees, says 22% were unemployed and looking for work and 51% were not looking for work because they were students or had given up job hunting.

“The biggest challenge of all is access to employment opportunities,” Bejko agreed. That’s not just the case for refugees, she added, but they tend to be isolated and not have the local context, experience or contacts that others might.

Even with support from nonprofits, the impact on refugees, including Alhalabi and her family, who are adjusting to a new way of life in El Cajon, both offline and online, has been devastating. She and her husband lost work during the pandemic, and she said they want to find jobs.

She was a childcare provider and her husband was an Uber driver, two hard-hit industries.

Because she couldn’t figure out the internet, Alhalabi missed a federal financial aid application that would have funded her ESL classes, positioning her for better work opportunities, and she said her daughter missed a college application deadline, leading to a “lost” year.

To apply for rental assistance, food stamps, unemployment and college financial aid, the family paid around $700 to a third party to help them.

Ahmed said these “fixers” are exploiting refugees. “People are asking them to pay $100 in order to help them with the applications. It's terrible,” she said. “People just try to take advantage of those people who don’t speak English by applying for them.”

Whose problem?

With refugees needing digital help, some community organizations said they’ve been forced to shift their focus.

Tessema said the Refugee Assistance Center had to “jump into this.”

The Majdal center, whose mission is to “uplift” its community members through advocacy and cultural programming, is now doing tech support to help people with online rental assistance applications.

“We, as a center, are not built to do the social service work … but because of the pandemic we had to pivot,” Awad said. “And so we're making do with what resources we have.”

Several local refugee groups applied to the state for a grant to combat health and digital inequity, but it was recently denied.

Bejko, with Jewish Family Service, said nonprofits step in to provide services until broader solutions from others emerge. “As everybody figures it out, what’s the best way to conduct business, the need is still there. So we do have to help our clients, even though that adds to the list of items, of services or gaps or challenges we have to help remove,” she said.

Yusufi said she wished government agencies had done more. State lawmakers responded with Senate Bill 91, which extends eviction protection through June, and the San Diego Unified School District equipped students with internet hotspots.

Alaa Taha checks in on her son's school assignments at her home in El Cajon, March 23, 2021.
Zoë Meyers
Alaa Taha checks in on her son's school assignments at her home in El Cajon, March 23, 2021.

To prevent refugees from ending up “worse off” as the pandemic wanes, she said her nonprofit advocates for “bold policy changes,” not “short-term relief programs.”

She is thinking big: reconsidering the resettlement system, helping refugees find affordable housing so they’re not living in overcrowded conditions. These ideas extend beyond digital equity, but she said they get at the same goal: investing in refugees for their long-term success.

Bejko said the goal for refugees going through resettlement is “self-sufficiency.” The pilot program — the one that teaches everything from online banking to English — is one step in that direction. Another is emphasizing the internet is “a necessity,” she said, instead of something merely “good to have.”

Like electricity, gas and water, she added.

Along with being guided by nonprofits, some refugees are learning new digital literacy skills on their own.

Alhalabi said she has been watching YouTube videos to learn about “technology stuff,” and asks her kids and husband to explain things to her.

Taha, in her El Cajon apartment, her two young sons giggling in the next room, said she feels she has been getting more competent with each online adventure.

“It's still hard, but I learn,” she said, then opened her laptop to get some work done.

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