Like many practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, Farhan Ali has turned to Netflix.
But Ali, 21, isn’t just watching for entertainment. He’s improving his English. About a month ago, his family arrived in the United States from Pakistan as refugees. Though they’re from Afghanistan, they’d fled to Pakistan out of fear of persecution by the Taliban. They spent their first week here living with his oldest sister in suburban Aurora.
“We went to Millennium Park,” Ali said by phone, recalling his first week in Chicago. “We’ve never been that much happy and free.”
But within two weeks of their arrival, Ali and his family were under a stay-at-home order like the rest of the state, as cases of COVID-19 continued to climb. Resettlement organizations have spent weeks helping refugees navigate unemployment benefits while others deemed essential workers have continued working. Recently resettled refugees like Ali are learning how to navigate their new country online from their new homes.
In total, 155 refugees have migrated to Illinois this year, according to federal Refugee Processing Center data, with nearly 50% coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. President Donald Trump has drastically lowered the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. in recent years. The proposed refugee cap for fiscal year 2020 was 18,000 people, the lowest the cap has been since the Refugee Act was implemented 40 years ago.
Flights for refugees arriving in the U.S. have been suspended until at least May 15, said Susan Sperry, regional director for World Relief in the Chicago area.
“Refugee resettlement is a vital lifeline for those how have already been through the screening process,” Sperry said.
Jims Porter, spokesman for RefugeeOne, a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago, said the organization’s main concern has been collecting emergency funds for those losing their income. RefugeeOne staff members have been working to help refugees file for unemployment, he said, and have been checking in with each family once a week.
“We’ll continue to call every week to find out what new needs are arising and how we can do things differently to help people in this moment,” said Porter.
World Relief’s Sperry said the agency has helped at least 150 refugees who have lost their jobs or had their hours significantly cut.
Though refugees are often seen as the most protected group of immigrants, they are more at risk of receiving too few resources than they have been in the past, said Porter. The federal coronavirus relief law allows some refugees to file for unemployment, but recent arrivals and those working in the gig economy face more challenges in getting benefits. The bill provides $350 million to the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, although Porter said agencies don’t yet know how those funds will be prioritized.
Local and national advocacy groups are pushing Congress to make sure all refugees, including those who arrived most recently, are eligible for the cash payments.
Agencies also have tried to emphasize to refugees that they cannot be penalized, under President Trump’s “public charge” rule meant to discourage immigrants from using government services, for seeking medical attention. Despite these measures, the most vulnerable refugees – those who have just arrived – are left unprotected, Porter said.
Many refugees in Chicago are on the front lines of the pandemic, working as certified nursing assistants or helping manufacture medical supplies, Sperry said.
Seema, Ali’s oldest sister, who asked that only her first name be used for publication, has lived in the country since 2016. She said her husband works at a factory that makes medical supplies. At least one employee had tested positive for COVID-19, and Seema wasn’t sure if her husband would go back to work.
“I feel not good,” about the situation, she said by phone.
Lalia Mweniake, who arrived in the country in mid-2016, is the only person in her family who has a job so far. Her husband made it to the United States only last month, and they have a 3-year-old son, born months after Mweniake arrived. Both lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania, but they’re from Congo.
Mweniake works at a retirement home in Uptown, but her husband, who speaks French and Swahili, is still looking for work. RefugeeOne has been helping the family with rent and groceries.
“I’m the only one who works, so I will need help,” said Mweniake.
Most refugee agencies in Chicago have had to move their services, such as English as a second language classes, health services and applications for city services, online.
Jani Alam, who came to Chicago as a Rohingya refugee in 2011 and now works for RefugeeOne, said that a hurdle for Myanmar’s Rohingya community has been that many can’t use written information about COVID-19 because Rohingya is a spoken language only. Most of the newly arrived Rohingya families can’t read or write yet, Alam said. And many of Chciago’s approximately 500 Rohingya families live in the West Ridge area, which has seen the highest number of coronavirus cases in the city.
Refugee families also have had their arrivals postponed. Alam said RefugeeOne was supposed to have a family of seven arriving in March, but their travel plans had to be canceled.
“We still have the apartment we got for them,” he said. “There’s a chance they can still come, but we don’t know when. It will take time.”
Elmida Kulovic, the refugee resettlement program director for Catholic Charities, said case managers are regularly checking in on refugees by phone to reduce their isolation.
“Our biggest concern are people who did face such a trauma,” before coming to the U.S., Kulovic said. “And we are concerned that now staying home and isolation could cause more of the traumatic stress.”
For Ali, social distancing has meant virtual English classes for his family. His siblings, ages 16, 9 and 3, aren’t able to start school until fall. Ali, who wants to study photography, has kept himself busy with YouTube videos on the subject.
Despite the slow start of his new life in America, he is optimistic about the future.
“Once we get back to the normal life, we want to walk freely,” Ali said.