Katia Iverson and Abdirahman Abdullahi have 90 days together.
For Katia, the case manager, that’s the time she gets to usher newly arrived refugees into life in Minnesota. For Abdi, a father of five who landed here this spring, those days whirl by after years in the languid limbo of an Ethiopian refugee camp.
“What if we’re not ready in three months?” Abdi asks Katia. “Will you just leave us alone?”
It’s a hectic year for Katia and other front-line workers in the Twin Cities, one of the country’s resettlement hubs. Minnesota is poised to take in 2,530 refugees, more than during any year in the past decade.
The resettlement work is unfolding amid a high-pitched debate: Some argue the United States does not take in enough refugees considering the global upheavals that have uprooted more people than ever before. Others counter that the country takes too many, saddling states with costs and anxieties about security.
Most days, that debate is muffled background noise for Katia at the Minnesota Council of Churches, one of five private resettlement agencies that contract with the federal government. She measures her job in those 90-day increments — time she gets to give Abdi the lay of his north Minneapolis neighborhood and an American grocery store, sign the family up for public benefits, enroll his children in school, connect him with a job counselor and later pull back and give him a taste of fending for himself.
Amid the loud national soul-searching, Katia and Abdi grapple with lower-key daily questions: Will they have enough time?
• • •
Just after 11 p.m. in late February, Katia catches her first glimpse of Abdi and his family at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. She learned the family was coming two weeks earlier, the average heads-up she gets from the federal government.
Katia strides into the cluster of distant relatives and former neighbors from the refugee camp who came to greet them. She kneels to shake hands with Abdi’s daughters. Her colleague Mohamed Daher, wearing a suit and clutching a coffee cup, translates from Somali.
“Everybody looks so tired,” Katia says. “How are you feeling?”
She gets her first good look when the family settles on a row of seats as greeters fetch their four suitcases. Abdi, wiry and slightly on edge even in a bleary-eyed daze. The quiet Fadumo Ismail, his wife, shielding sleeping toddler Ahmed from the fluorescent airport glare with her headscarf. Eleven-year-old Nimo, a poised beauty, wearing a navy coat that says “summer” and “dreamland.” Mohamed, 9, taking in the scene with glinting eyes and slightly parted lips. Hamda, 7, a more guarded version of her older sister. Five-year-old Roida, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes.
In the airport’s no man’s land, they take a final moment to gather themselves before life in America kicks in.
• • •
By 8:15 the next morning, Katia is back at the house that she rented several days ago and furnished hours before Abdi and Fadumo arrived. She is driving them downtown so they can apply for Social Security cards, which will allow them to apply for food stamps, subsidized health insurance and public school.
Katia is used to the pace of the job. She is a scribbler of to-do lists and drinker of black coffee. She listens with unfeigned empathy. Her soft cardigans and scarves telegraph cozy comfort. She can also summon a flinty firmness to push her clients toward independence. As a former boss said, she is the one who tells them their first job might be third shift at a manufacturing plant, with an hourlong commute on the bus.
Katia interned at the agency as a cross-cultural major at Augsburg College. In 2013, she was hired as a housing manager, cajoling landlords into renting to people with no rental history and no credit score.
Now she is a case manager, part of a youthful team of 15, including former refugees such as Daher, handling the agency’s 430 arrivals this year. The pay is modest. The barrage of “drop whatever you’re doing and make a plan” events is constant. She dashes to the ER after a refugee tumbles on a slippery sidewalk. She fields calls about gas leaks or bedbugs or a family of eight arriving the following week. She deals with the fallout when a Nepali couple plays hardball with a landlord and forfeits a security deposit and two months’ prepaid rent.
But there’s also the moment on the way downtown, when the skyscrapers of Minneapolis loom, and in the back seat of Katia’s Subaru, Roida stirs: “Allah! Allah!”
“That’s why I love being here,” Katia says. “It’s really fun not knowing what the day looks like.”
Katia is unfazed by the headlines: A majority of the nation’s governors have vowed to block refugees from Syria and Iraq, and crowds have flocked to hear speakers decry the arrival of refugees in Minnesota. She was calm last winter when a landlord asked for a copy of an Iranian family’s background check, something she didn’t have.
For her, the toughest part of the job hasn’t changed, she says: “It’s leaving families when you don’t feel they are self-sufficient.”
• • •
In the spacious waiting room of a Hennepin County human services office, Abdi listens to the numbers called out, occasionally in Somali. The week after they arrived, the family is waiting to apply for expedited cash and food assistance.
Daher, who drove them here an hour ago, paces and fiddles with his phone. But Abdi, Fadumo and the children are still, sitting with hands in the pockets of winter coats they have kept on through the wait. The children have barely fidgeted.
Camp life forced upon Abdi a supreme patience.
He and Fadumo spent most of their lives in the Kebribeyah refugee camp, a remote outpost in the lowlands of eastern Ethiopia plagued by chronic water shortages. They lived in a home made of multicolored pieces of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, shelters which give the camp the look of a manic quilt bazaar. Here, Abdi taught social science to a class of more than 50 students.
About eight years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees screened them for possible resettlement. Then, in two lengthy interviews, U.S. government officials lobbed questions: Did they ever cross back into Somalia? Did they know anyone with the terrorist group Al-Shabab?
Seven months later, a letter arrived. It was in English, but Abdi knew a check mark meant the family had been accepted to the United States. He also knew it was too soon to celebrate.
Years passed. Every day, Abdi checked a camp bulletin board for his name on a flight information list. Camp neighbors approved around the same time left for the United States.
After five years, Abdi finally saw his name on the list.
Now, he weighs the prospect of cobbling a new life together in 90 days.
During a welcome meeting at the agency, Abdi leans forward in his seat. Katia has just written a flurry of dollar amounts on a whiteboard, stark refugee math. The federal government provides $925 per family member — or $6,475 — to get them started in those first three months. About $2,800 went toward a security deposit on their house, furniture and groceries. Out of that $6,475, the agency will also cover rent in March and chip in $500 for the next three months. State benefits will cover the rest.
In their first five years in the United States, refugees are much more likely to rely on public benefits than the U.S.-born or other immigrants. In 2014, Minnesota spent more than $31 million in food or cash assistance and $137 million in medical assistance for residents who came as refugees, including some federal dollars — about 2 percent of its overall tab for such programs.
With time, the gap narrows: After a decade, fewer than a quarter of refugees receive food stamps, compared to 11 percent of U.S.-born residents. At that point, refugee men are employed at a slightly higher rate than U.S.-born peers.
“So you’re saying after three months we’ll be self-sufficient?” Abdi asks.
Katia smiles and shakes her head no. “You’ll be connected to a job counselor,” she says. “You’ll be connected to an English class. Your children will be in school.”
• • •
On a Monday in March, Mohamed, Abdi’s 9-year-old, walks toward Anne Sullivan Elementary with his sisters Nimo and Hamda. The three hold hands, a unified front. Swept along by a stream of students lugging oversized backpacks, they carry nothing. He wears a gray Adidas hoodie a couple of sizes too large.
The past two weeks have buffeted Mohamed and his family with new experiences. He takes it all in with parted-lip vigilance, a budding cultural guide for his parents.
Daher takes Abdi and Mohamed to Aldi’s for groceries. Later in the parking lot, Mohamed listens as Daher gives Abdi feedback: Here, it’s rude to throw the money on the conveyor belt.
The family sits down with Katia and the property manager to sign their lease. Relatives and acquaintances — the folks Katia calls her clients’ “street case managers” — have told Abdi and Fadumo the $1,100 rent is too high, the neighborhood too dangerous and the house too far from where other Somalis live. Abdi surprises Katia by asking for a discount, but the manager won’t budge.
Parents and children, flush with the promise of a fresh start, wear their best clothes and bustle when Katia arrives to take them to a school district visit.
Over three weeks in the agency’s state-funded orientation class, Abdi learns how to write checks, ride the bus, interact with police officers, start the process of sponsoring relatives for resettlement and create a résumé.
Instructor Peter Kallal shows Abdi what not to do at a job interview: He proffers a floppy hand for the handshake, looks away and mumbles an introduction. Abdi smiles.
Year after year in the refugee camp, the family shuffled along a path with no detours. They ate United Nations rations. The children went to the camp’s primary school and the one health clinic.
Then, in just two weeks in the United States, they confront decisions at every juncture: Traditional public school or charter school? Cornflakes or Cheerios? The agency’s federally funded in-house cash assistance and job counseling program, which comes with four months of rent, utilities and transportation — and a big push to find a job within those four months? Or the county’s program, which comes with subsidized child care?
At every turn, Mohamed catches glimpses of how refugee resettlement has reshaped his new home. More than 40,000 refugees from 60 countries have arrived in Minnesota since 2000; thousands more head here after resettlement elsewhere, more than to any other state.
There are Somali faces behind counters at the Social Security office, the county office and Mohamed’s school — a sign of growing clienteles, but also evidence you can travel the distance from the camp to those positions of authority. Mohamed and his sisters will attend the yearlong Nabad program, which the school district launched three years ago to address a wave of Somali students.
In Mohamed’s classroom that first day, the teacher calls the students “super scholars.” Mohamed eyes the superhero mascot on his desk: Wonder Woman in her spandex and cape. His head whips around every time he overhears Somali, eager for clues.
The class is on page 200 of their “In the USA” textbook. Mohamed tugs on the sleeve of the boy next to him, who is supposed to interpret. After a while, he pulls on his hood and tucks his hands in his sleeves, retreating into his sweatshirt.
• • •
A month after the family’s arrival, Abdi watches Katia cull important letters from junk mail. The county spelled out their benefits in April: $850 cash, $110 in housing grant, $894 for food. There’s a letter about their first appointment with the county employment counselor. The school district wrote to let them know that they qualify for free lunch.
Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, Katia looks supremely calm. In a stiff-backed chair across from her, Abdi is tense. He has felt a change in the past week: The early flurry of appointments has subsided.
Katia needs to see that more activities are scheduled for them, Abdi tells her. She explains that more refugees have come since Abdi’s family arrived; she and Daher are busy helping them get started.
“When you’re first here, we see you a lot,” she says. “But a lot of times at this point we have to say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help.’ ”
Abdi and Fadumo arrived at the tail end of the annual winter lull in resettlement. Work has gotten a lot busier for Katia. Over 10 days, 27 refugees from eight families are arriving. Thursday is “crazy apartment setup day.”
But Abdi and Fadumo also have reached a juncture when Katia starts stepping back.
“You’re pushing people out into the world,” she says.
After the structure of those first few weeks, the open calendar ahead unsettles Abdi. The transition has been hard in ways he didn’t expect. Relatives told Abdi he shouldn’t wear the traditional sarong-like macawis common in the camp. He chafes against his new uniform of button-down shirts and khakis — and against the sight of passers-by showing too much skin. Fadumo longs for the way she and other mothers in the camp spent the days cooking, talking and laughing.
The U.S. government loans refugees money for the trip to the United States, and Abdi braces for the bill. But most of all, he worries about the three-month mark. In the camp, Abdi heard that if he gets behind on rent, the landlord will toss his belongings in the street, and stray dogs will bite him. He pictures Somalis sharing a Facebook photo of him on a curbside.
“If we are left and we are not working, we can’t even pay the rent,” he tells Fadumo. “I will lose my reputation in the U.S.”
• • •
On March 30, Abdi walks in unannounced at the Minnesota Council of Churches. Katia’s to-do list seems to grow by the hour. But she steps out of her cubicle to talk, knowing he rode two buses to the agency’s office on Franklin Avenue.
Abdi tells her that the family’s prorated food assistance dollars for March didn’t go far. Now, they have rice and pasta, but no meat and vegetables.
Katia asks Abdi whether the family bought anything besides food. The children came home from school a few days in and begged for new clothes, Abdi says. He also picked up a rug at the Somali mall, which draws him every week with the promise of community.
The agency will chip in more for the April rent, Katia tells Abdi. She brings a box of diapers from the donation room. He can come to her for advice, she tells him, but he should start leaning more on those street case managers.
Sooc Deis, the wife of Abdi’s cousin, is the family’s U.S. tie, the relative chosen to help with their transition. When she met Abdi and Fadumo at the airport, she told them: “Welcome to America! This is a nice place. There’s good education for the kids. You’ll get a good job. You’ll have a good life.”
Deis’ husband drove them to the grocery store and to a health screening. But Deis doesn’t drive, the family is busy raising six children, and their apartment is far away.
So Abdi calls Daher instead. He calls about getting around on the bus. He calls to say he wants to start looking for a new home, and Daher explains that they have to stick with their lease until September.
At one point, Daher tells Abdi, “There are still people sitting in the refugee camp waiting for their flights. You’re here.”
Abdi doesn’t want to wait anymore, not here, where everyone seems seized with a sense of urgency. In April, he comes to see Katia twice more.
The family is having a tough transition, Katia knows. Not everyone struggles as much. She recently welcomed another Somali couple and their four children. In a South African city, the father learned English, rented an apartment and worked as a driver. During the first grocery store trip, he knew what brand of baby formula he wanted. Later, he asked whether he could pay his electricity bill online.
• • •
Almost 90 days after Abdi and Fadumo arrived, Katia and Daher are back in their living room to check in one last time. This time, Fadumo does the talking, at a fast, confident clip.
“We’re getting high utility bills,” she says.
Now that winter is over, the bills should shrink, Katia says.
Can the agency help with finding subsidized public housing? The agency doesn’t help with that, Katia explains calmly.
Abdi pipes up: Can Katia help them with the written notice that they will leave the house at the end of their lease?
“Is there somebody who can help you with that?” Katia asks. “A friend?”
Daher and Abdi go back and forth in Somali for a while. Then, Daher shrugs, “We don’t know how to write the notice.”
“We know you have helpers,” Katia persists. “Those are people in the community that have offered to help. Does that sound like a possibility?”
“That’s possible,” Abdi concedes.
Abdi weighs asking Katia for an extension, a few extra months of support. He decides against it. But as he signs paperwork closing his case, he says, half joking, “No, you’re still going to stay with us. I’ll still come to you.”
• • •
In August, Abdi weighs the family’s situation. His worst fears haven’t come true. After a lead from a community connection, Fadumo started a part-time job at a Somali-run day care, which she juggles with English class. With a small loan from a relative, they made the rent for July and August.
Mohamed and his sisters come home from day care quizzing Abdi on new English words they learned. In the fall, they will return to the Nabad program.
Abdi is taking an English and computer class. He knows he needs to find a job. But despite the meeting with a job counselor, he feels unsure of how to go about it. He has a plan though: Get a state subsidy for driving lessons, find a car and drive over to relatives who can show him how to look for openings.
In August, the resettlement agency welcomed 70 refugees. Katia pauses from her work: She realizes she has not heard from Abdi since she closed his case.