by Jacob Loel
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ramesh Karki looks comfortable, leaning on a desk in his new office in Kansas City, Kansas’ Argentine neighborhood.
He’s sporting a fashionably cut beard and a blue button down. When he landed at KCI in July 2012, he had every reason to feel scared, defeated and nervous. He was a refugee, in debt to the International Organization of Migration for the cost of his flight from Nepal, where he was living in a refugee camp along with thousands of other members of ethnic minorities expelled from Bhutan.
But he was not scared. Instead, when he arrived, he had been “already thinking about the land of opportunity.”
Like most refugees resettled to Kansas City, Kansas, Karki was assigned a case worker at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. After hearing Karki’s motivations, his case worker suggested he meet with Jessica Alwine, the Individual Development Accounts (IDA) coordinator at Catholic Charities.
IDA is a savings program for refugees who have been in the United States for five years or less. Known as “double money,” the program helps refugees set up a savings account and then matches their earnings — up to $4,000 for families or up to $2,000 for individuals.
Unlike other refugee resettlement programs, which generally focus on the immediate needs of recently arrived refugees such as housing, first jobs, medical needs, English classes and American document assistance, the IDA program focuses on long-term financial independence.
“We’re really trying to teach them about the whole process of saving money,” said Alwine.
Alwine believes the program encourages her refugee clients to work harder. To be accepted into the program, refugees are required to have held a job for two months. Also, there are minimums for savings account deposits in order to remain in good standing and continue to receive funds.
Unlike other Catholic Charities’ programs, the IDA program is completely funded by a public grant. All funding comes from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Administration for Children & Families, which is responsible for providing charitable agencies funding for benefits for recent arrivals into the United States who are considered refugees, asylees and other persecuted migrant populations.
The IDA program is extremely helpful to refugees, added Alwine, since they often come from countries where the education system is defunct or inaccessible, and many had to leave what little assets they had in their home country before fleeing.
The money earned from the program can be used for school tuition, house or car payments or startup funds for businesses.
Karki, who taught 9th- and 10th- grade mathematics in Nepal, had no business experience before coming to the United States. He had pursued a bachelor of arts in India, but had no training about American workplace expectations or business practices. He taught himself business etiquette and business practices with online classes.
With the help of the IDA program, he opened Druk-National Home Care, a home health company. He currently has seven employees; two registered nurses and five caregivers.
Within the office, he also operates a small accounting firm and hopes to open a personal insurance company within the same walls.
Bawi Hrin Thang, a refugee from the Chin State in Burma, arrived in Kansas City with his wife and three children in June 2016. Like Karki, he also was happy, not scared, he says in broken English, to be in the United States. Thang and his growing family spent 10 years in Malaysia, where life is difficult for refugees.
According to the Seattle-based nonprofit The Borgen Project, the Malaysian government has never signed the U.N. Refugee Convention and, under Malaysian law, there are no rights or protections for refugees.
While refugees are not allowed legal work permits in Malaysia, many work unofficial jobs. However, Malaysia cooperates with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, allowing them U.N. refugee status, which will usually — but not always — protect them from deportation back to the country they fled from.
In February, Thang and his family were living in an apartment which didn’t adequately accommodate a growing family. He and his wife decided to meet with Alwine and enter the IDA program.
Soon after enrolling, they began preparing for their fourth child, the first to be born in America. They chose to use their IDA grant money to make a down payment on a house.
Thang and his family are now settling into their newly purchased home in western Kansas City, Kansas, in a quiet neighborhood with a large backyard. The house is simply decorated, mainly with religious art, and very tidy, although Thang humbly gestures to a small pile of clutter in the garage and apologizes.
Thang is a diminutive man by American standards, perhaps as a result of food shortages in his native Chin state in Myanmar, where one in three children suffer from stunting, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.
Although he drives approximately 50 miles a day to his job, where he assembles heating and cooling units for houses, he is happy with his situation.
It’s a good job, he explains. There are no shutdowns, and he gets generous paid time off for Christmas and New Year.
Though some refugees struggle to successfully integrate quickly into the United States, the IDA program gives refugees the support they need to achieve their goals in what Karki — and so many hard-working immigrants before him — have considered the land of opportunity.
Loel is an AmeriCorps VISTA member working at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, assisting with the Refugee and Immigration Services program.