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Strangers in a Strange Land: Refugees in San Antonio

Center for Refugee Services Facebook page

Their accounts of violence, oppression, and danger will astonish you, but not more than their determination to survive and thrive. Every year, San Antonio sees hundreds of refugees settled in the city. Strangers in a strange land - how well are these lost people getting along?

A special project from the UTSA Advanced Policy Social Work masters class wanted to find out – and inform the city.

Graduate students in UTSA's Department of Social Work are hosting "In a Place of Refuge: Many Stories, One Goal," a refugee awareness event taking place Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. at UTSA’s downtown campus.

In the studio to talk about the struggles of local refugees is Cassandra Bright Salcedo, a student at the UTSA Master of Social Work program, and Professor Robert Ambrosino who teaches the UTSA Advanced Policy Social Work masters class.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that refugees face when they get to the United States is language.

"When they come here to San Antonio, a lot of them barely speak English," says Salcedo. "They are given a brief orientation before coming to the United States to help them with their English, but like you said, a lot of them barely speak any English. They start in entry level positions, maybe in hotels or in restaurants, but many of the refugees that come here do have degrees - medical degrees - but they're forced into these lower-paying positions just because of the challenges they face with language issues."

Refugees are given limited government assistant and are expected to become self-sustaining within three months. Ambrosino discovered through his interviews that the refugees are also expected to pay back the federal government for the airfare from their home country or face losing government assistance. In one case, a man who was married and had nine children was facing a bill for several thousand dollars.

"The refugees I talked to are not looking for a handout," says Ambrosino. "One of the questions I ask all of the refugees that I have interviewed is: What is the single most important dream you have in America? And they say, 'We would like to have a home and a decent life for our children,' which is really the American dream. They are very proud, they are hard working, and I think they are ashamed by having to receive assistance, and at the same time not be able to provide for themselves and their family."

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi