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The Refugee Story: Building New Lives

CORRECTION, 12/19/13: The stricken statement below regarding Texas's ranking among states that take in refugees is incorrect.

Texas is home to more refugees from strife-torn countries than any other state, and San Antonio takes in more than any other city in Texas.   TPR's  Eileen Pace examines the scope of the refugee influx to our city, and the ways San Antonio manages the new populations in our series, “The Refugee Story: Building New Lives.”

It’s the morning routine at Colonies North Elementary School. Patti Enriquez calls her Kinder and 1st grade “newcomer” class to attention.

She directs the students in singing a uniquely American song, rewritten for small children to learn English.

Since 2006, Colonies North Elementary School has become one of the main target schools for young children who arrive in San Antonio through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.

In fact, San Antonio is home to more than 10,000 refugees from a variety of countries – including 800 new arrivals in the last year.

Larry Bartlett, Director of the Refugee Admissions Program at the U.S. State Dept. in Washington, said Texas is the number one resettlement state in the country, receiving 7,500 of the 70,000 refugees that came to the U.S. last year.  

"Texas is actually fairly representative of the country in terms of nationalities we resettle," Bartlett said. "We resettle over 60 nationalities to the U.S.  For the state of Texas itself, Burmese, Iraqis, Butanese, Somalis and Congolese have really been the largest numbers."

The State Department works with Volunteer Agencies – or VOLAGS – to help refugees assimilate. 

In San Antonio, that agency is Catholic Charities.  Caseworkers help with housing, transportation, and enrollment into social networks around the city. 

Hisham Batar, himself a refugee from Sudan, worked his way up from a low-wage first job in San Antonio to become the Director of the Refugee Program at Catholic Charities, and said the most challenging job is finding the refugees places to live. 

"We have... a list of items required by the federal government, and before we go pick them up at the airport, everything has to be in the apartment. So, we are furnishing the apartments, getting all the resources ready so when they come, we can work with them and get them self-sufficient quickly." 

Helping the refugees to self-sufficiency quickly is the priority, because the government program only provides six months of financial assistance. Batar says San Antonio has the highest employment rate of any refugee program in the nation.

"We go out and find employers. And we work with them to place refugees."

We'll explore the path to meaningful employment for refugees in the next installment of our series “The Refugee Story, Building New Lives.”