International Rescue Committee (IRC)

After Hurricane Katrina, starting over in Atlanta

Only days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed a swath of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the International Rescue Committee dispatched an emergency team of relief experts to Louisiana. For the first time in its 73-year history, the organization responded to a humanitarian crisis in the United States.

In this interview first published in August 2010, the IRC's Albert Mbanfu recalls his role aiding Katrina survivors who relocated to Atlanta, Georgia: 

When Albert Mbanfu fled Cameroon and found political asylum in the United States in 2005, he brought with him several years of experience working for nonprofit and development organizations. He soon found work with the Atlanta office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which helps refugees build new lives in the U.S.

Albert's new job was not aiding refugees from war-torn countries, however, but helping people from the Gulf Coast who had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina relocate to Atlanta and find work. He spoke with me last week about that experience:

When you joined the IRC did you imagine you would be assisting people from the U.S.?

I never thought I would be assisting Americans who were facing almost the same kind of situation that refugees face. So it was really a challenge for me. I was just six months in the country and it was a whole different world. I was a displaced person helping displaced people.

How do you help someone who has just arrived in Atlanta get a job?

We talk to that person about his or her work and educational background, and what he or she expects. We help them understand that their first job may not be the dream job that they want, but it will be a first step toward achieving what they have in mind.

We get in touch with many employers and lobby on behalf of that person. We tell them that although they may not be fluent in English, for example, they are capable of doing the work — and are just so determined and willing to work, and start their life anew.

What job skills did the Katrina evacuees have?

They came with quite a variety of skills. Some of them were teachers, sales associates and artists. Some of them were working in the advertising industry. Some of them were living on welfare even before the hurricane hit.

Was it difficult for Katrina evacuees to find jobs in Atlanta?

It was difficult for many of them. They were not in a psychologically stable condition where they could easily think of going back to work. Some had lost family members — lost everything. And they were far from home, trying to locate missing loved ones, assess the damage to their property and file claims — while at the same time trying to find a place to live and something to eat.

But some of them quickly overcame the troubles they faced during that time and got jobs. And some of them just held on with the assistance they received, hoping that things could change very soon for them to go back to the Gulf Coast.

Did some evacuees see getting a job in Atlanta as a possible obstacle to being able to return home quickly if the opportunity arose?

Yes, exactly. But there were some who were open to getting jobs. Eventually many people had to go back because they thought it was the right thing to do. I recall one teacher from Louisiana who was happy with the teaching job she got here. But when New Orleans became more stable, there was a need for teachers and she said, "Albert, I am going back. I have to go back home and help rebuild."

How do you help someone who has lost everything start over?

The very first thing you have to do is try to understand where they are coming from. These are people who have gone through all of the horrible things you can think of. You just have to be patient, compassionate. Listen to them and help them understand that life is full of ups and downs and that they can always catch up.

This interview was first published by Associated Content from Yahoo.

Learn more about the IRC's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The IRC's work in the United States

IRC offices across the U.S. help ensure that refugees have what they need to get started in their adopted land — a place to live, food, clothing, encouragement and emotional support. The IRC introduces them to new communities, and helps them find jobs and learn English. 

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