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Refugee resettlement

Refugee resettlement: Perspectives from an IRC caseworker

An IRC caseworker and Congolese refugee on the practical challenges facing newly-resettled families

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

When Dauda Balubwila arrived in the United States as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011, he had no idea what to expect. He had never heard of Boise, Idaho—his new home—and he was surprised to see so few people on the streets compared to his hometown of Kinshasa. He was lucky enough to find that he had Congolese neighbors, who welcomed him with open arms.

Today, Balubwila is a caseworker at IRC’s Boise office, helping other refugees navigate their arrival in a foreign country. In 2016, he was reunited with his wife and children after five long years apart. On this episode of Displaced, Balubwila offers his unique perspective as someone who has both gone through the resettlement process himself and assisted others adjusting to their new lives in the United States.

Balubwila walks Ravi and Grant through a typical day as an IRC caseworker: he greets refugees at the airport, enrolls children in school, and helps parents join English language classes. Based on his experience, Balubwila argues that eight months—the period after which temporary services like cash and medical assistance run out—is often not enough time for refugees to become self-sufficient. This is a particular challenge for refugees who arrive with limited English language skills but must gain employment within that short window. “Everything is timing,” Balubwila explains. “For someone who came here without English, if he can get a job, what kind of job? And the time is running.”

Dauda Balubwila, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who now works at the IRC's resettlement office in Boise, Idaho.

Consistent with America’s “up by your bootstraps” ethos, the U.S. resettlement model emphasizes rapid employment. By contrast, European models focus on language acquisition, education, and re-credentialing in the first months after arrival. Balubwila’s insights point to an important question: how should the United States enhance investment in refugees so that they can acquire higher-paid and more sustainable employment? In other worlds, how can we support refugees so that they reach their full potential?

There is extensive research to suggest that refugees produce economic dividends for host countries. A draft study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that refugees had a net positive fiscal impact of $63 billion over ten years (the Trump administration rejected the study’s findings). An NBER working paper estimates that refugees contribute $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits within their first two decades in the United States. The economic payoff of refugee resettlement holds true in Europe too: a BCG study of 300 German firms found that the initial costs of integrating refugee workers were typically offset in one year. And a 2016 report by the Open Political Economy Network and the Tent Institute found that a €1 investment in asylum seekers and refugees yielded nearly €2 in economic benefits within five years.

“The period of time they give for refugees to become self-sufficient, it’s not enough. You’ll find some people after eight months … [it’s like they’ve been here for] only one month, because to cope with the adjustment is so difficult.”

Balubwila discusses the practical, day-to-day challenges facing newly-resettled refugees: making rent, applying for low-cost housing, and locating family and friends in other states. Like Ilhan Omar, Balubwila emphasizes that refugees arrive in the United States with very different experiences. Some “people cope to the adjustment very fast,” he says, “but for others it’s very difficult.”

Related Resources

Watch: Boise Refugee Reunites with Family After Five Years Apart — International Rescue Committee

90 Days to Start a New Life: For Refugees in the U.S., What Happens Next? — NPR

Refugees Can and Should Be Good Business for Everyone —  Radha Rajkotia, Business Insider

Refugees as Employees: Good Retention, Strong Recruitment — Fiscal Policy Institute and the Tent Partnership for Refugees

Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo —  Council on Foreign Relations