"If we live, too much difficult. If we die, too much difficult,"

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"A Bhutanese refugee died recently in his Vickery Meadow apartment in Dallas, within walking distance of Lal Subba's home. The family had no money for a burial, so Subba and the other Bhutanese families in the complex took up a collection to ensure the elderly man received appropriate honor for the life he led.

"If we live, too much difficult. If we die, too much difficult," said the 21-year-old who grew up in a Nepal refugee camp and came to Dallas in October, only to find a flailing national economy instead of the idealized American dream.

That reality is now hitting Texas (and Vermont), where laid-off workers and legal immigrants are vying for a declining number of jobs in blue-collar industries.

Purna Ghaley (left) and Lal Subba, refugees from Bhutan, walk to the Park Lane transit station for their commute to downtown Dallas, where they work for a catering company. They and their families moved to Dallas last fall to start new lives after living in a refugee camp in Nepal. " Photos by SONYA N. HEBERT/DMN"

Texas has suffered less than its Midwestern counterparts and has no plans to slow its refugee influx. It took in a little more than 5,000 refugees last year, an increase of almost 800 from 2007. Texas generally places in the top four states for the number of refugees it accepts annually from the federal government. The state of Vermont accepts the largest number of refugees per capita, of any state. The problems in Vermont are severely compounded by the lack of a large and varied employer base. In Burlington, Vermont where most of the Vermont refugees are based, most USA residents are employed by local colleges, schools, the hospital, IBM and local, state and federal government offices. For the most part, these employers do not have any jobs that Bhutanese refugees qualify for. The problem is simple, Burlington, Vermont is a small town with a mostly "white-collar" oriented employment base, composed of just a few major employers.

"We are at the beginning stages of feeling the impact in Texas," said Caitriona Lyons, the state's refugee program coordinator. She said it's now taking longer to place refugees in jobs, thwarting the adjustment process and lessening their ability to become self-sufficient.

In Vermont, the overwhelming majority of Bhutanese refugees that have lived in Vermont for 5 months or longer, do not have any jobs and certainly not stable or sustainable jobs.

Subba is one of more than 1,000 refugees who arrived in Dallas as the nation began its financial nose dive. A teacher by trade, he found a part-time job as a dishwasher after three months of searching. He makes $64 a day, sometimes working only one day a week. That barely covers the $555 in rent and utilities each month for himself and his mother. Food stamps leave enough for rice and vegetables. They choose sweaters over heat.

The $445 he receives monthly from the International Rescue Committee will trickle to $187 next month and stop in July, along with the Medicaid for his sick mother.

"I see people under the bridge and I think, 'Will that be me?' " he said in the halting English he learned in the camp. His Nepali ancestry put him at risk in Bhutan, and his refugee status left him shunned in Nepal.

"We are in the right place at the wrong time. This is a good country, but when we arrive here, it's too much difficult to get a job for all people, not just us."

About 60,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. last year – 8,000 more than in 2007. The number is expected to grow in 2009.

The Vermont refugees are supported with small monthly stipends for about the first 4 months. No other substantial services are offered by the resettlement agency. Many of them are placed in apartments that they cannot afford, once the first four months of meager stipend checks cease.

The solution is not to decrease the flow of refugees but to overhaul the entire system during the new administration, said one person. She wants more resources channeled toward housing assistance as well as programs that focus on the increasingly diverse pool of refugees entering the United States.

"This is a decision to rescue people in extraordinarily dire circumstances," she said, citing the nation's longstanding history of moral obligation.

The U.S. took in more than 90,000 refugees in the early 1980s when the economy teetered just as precariously as now, she said.
In Vermont and elsewhere, generally, the state the refugee agencies are well-staffed, however the refugees see almost no effect. Phone calls and messages to refugee agency employees are seldom returned. The refugee agency does not even answer their phones most of the time! The refugee agency is not even located in Burlington or Winooski where the majority of refugees are located. This causes major disruptions to refugees to trek via bus and foot to adjoining towns using a disjointed bus service. This is just the beginning of frustration and fear for the Bhutanese refugees. It gets much worse from there.

The stimulus package will affect refugees the same way it does lower-income Americans, but that still won't significantly help them, said Debi Wheeler, the IRC's regional director in Dallas. The search for jobs and housing is compounded by a culture shock that includes anything from buying a DART ticket to learning how to tell the difference between a $1 bill and a $20 bill.
"There is just not enough money for what we are required to do, and the recession is bringing to light the challenges that are faced by these programs," she said.

"Imagine finding an apartment in America for one person, and we are looking for hundreds."
Area caseworkers say it's even more difficult to find employment for refugees. Last May, IRC job developer Jim Stokes placed 11 to 12 people a week in positions. Now, he hopes for two to three a week. Prospects for gainful employment in Vermont are much more bleak.

Dallas hosts three federally funded refugee agencies: IRC, Catholic Charities and Refugee Services of Texas. Vermont hosts just one, even though more refugees were brought to the state than any other state, on a per capita basis. From the $6.2 million allocated through Texas, a little more than $1.6 million will go to Dallas this year. The agencies lobby for funding from the state government.