Kansas City refugee agency overloaded, refugees suffer

Update January 7th:  Readers may wish to see the critical comments on this article at The Pitch today (click on ‘show comments’ at the top).

This a jaw-dropping article by reporter Carolyn Szczepanski for The Pitch and is perhaps one of the most revealing and shocking stories of how the US State Department’s refugee resettlement program is imploding.   

I know some of our readers will have little patience for refugees’ complaints, but the predicament they find themselves in is out of their control.  They expected that at minimum they would not go hungry in America.  They have no money for return airfare as much as some would like to go back to their home country or even a camp.   As you read this, focus your anger at the resettlement agencies (local and national) and at a federal bureaucracy that seems to be in complete disarray and lacks the political will to admit the program is a wreck and in need of reform from top to bottom.

Please read the entire stunning expose by Ms. Szczepanski.

This is how the story opens, and below I’ve pulled out a few things I want to comment on in the lengthy report.

When Foibe Nibitanga got a ticket to a new life in the United States, she didn’t expect the fear and hunger of the refugee camp to follow her to Kansas City.


On October 20, with their belongings crammed into plastic-mesh bags, her family arrived in Kansas City. It was after 11 p.m. when their caseworker from Jewish Vocational Service, the local nonprofit on Baltimore Avenue that contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees in Kansas City, Missouri, dropped them off at the shabby brick house on Prospect.

The large apartment had three bedrooms, each with thin blankets covering sturdy cots. Other provisions were few. The only food in the house, Nibitanga says, was bread — a starch that her children couldn’t eat. According to the Burundian mother, the family’s caseworker from JVS didn’t return for several days. By then, they had already showed their bare refrigerator to their landlord and told him with hand gestures that they were hungry. They had also appealed to others in Kansas City’s small Burundi community for food because they had no money to purchase it.

The story goes on and gets worse.  Readers should know that the State Department contract, that the resettlement agency signs, requires certain basic items and care required by each refugee family.  It is called Operational guidance and how these agencies continue to receive refugees when they don’t follow their contractual obligations is beyond me.

The article goes on to tell us one case after another where refugees are left in a lurch and as one refugee said, when complaints are made, “There is total darkness at JVS.”

JVS employees claim they do follow their contractual obligations, and claim problems are a result of not enough money.

Weitkamp and Foster insist that JVS has followed the letter of its federal contract, providing all necessary services. But both acknowledge that the organization is struggling to keep up. In 2009, JVS accepted 492 refugees, up from 400 in 2008. The $1.3 million it received from Washington, D.C., they say, isn’t nearly enough to cover even basic necessities such as rent and utilities.

The State Department counters that this was supposed to be a Public-Private partnership and the agency needs to also come up with private donations to help meet the refugees’ needs.   All over the country they aren’t doing that!  Many agencies leave refugees in the lurch and then claim the taxpayers aren’t supplying enough money.  I wonder are they helping bring about a “crisis” so that the Obama White House will just conclude they need more money rather than revamping the whole program.

Wills, the State Department spokeswoman, says federal funds aren’t supposed to be the sole source of support and explains that refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership. “We figure they will also use that [money] for fundraising. At least that’s traditionally been the case. But what’s happened recently, with the recession, is that the flaws in the system have really been highlighted. We recognize that a lot of refugees are having a lot of trouble.”

So does the White House.  Last summer, the National Security Council appointed an interagency task force to come up with recommendations, due in February, on how to revamp the resettlement system.

Employees resigned or were fired after complaining the agency was accepting more refugees than it could adequately care for!  (We first heard this story last June, here)

Karen Janas thinks that JVS — and Foster — could do better. After nearly 30 years with the organization, Janas resigned her position as director of the refugee program in April. Janas says the hardships that have been passed on to the refugees could have been avoided with more aggressive planning. “Twenty thousand dollars would be nothing to raise. In the Jewish community, it could be done like that,” she says, pausing to snap her fingers, “if it had been a goal.” She says she left because of Foster’s management style and what she calls a hostile work environment at JVS.

She wasn’t the only one. Another longtime employee, Ralph Levy, resigned his position as director of the sheltered workshop and IT in March. Levy summed up his concerns in a letter to the organization’s board of directors in June. He suggested that whistle-blowers face retaliation. “Most recently,” he wrote, “three employees who had presented information to the executive concerning inadequate housing for refugees were terminated after a newspaper article pointed out these very deficiencies.” Levy cited concerns that the organization was “accepting excessive numbers of refugees that the organization was unable to support.

Hitting the nail on the head!  Reverberating consequences!

So why in the face of all this evidence in many cities that too many refugees are being resettled, comes the answer I’ve been reporting all along.  Reading between the lines, it is about money.  It is about fueling an international bureaucracy. It is about keeping taxpayer dollars flowing to resettlement agencies.  It is about fueling a national bureaucracy—offices and salaries.   And, until this past year, problems have been hidden from public scrutiny because of that old ‘presumption of good intentions’ on the part of resettlement agencies and Washington bureaucrats.

Every year, Foster explains, USCRI — the Virginia nonprofit that acts as the conduit between JVS and the State Department — tells its affiliates how many refugees it plans to send in the coming fiscal year.

“In June, we originally projected 420, and then USCRI* asked us if we would raise that to 450,” Foster says. “They have a network number that they project and they try to work that out among their affiliates.”

If Kansas City cuts back, Weitkamp says, other affiliates across the country will have to pick up the slack — or the national program will be scaled back or eliminated. “It’s not as though we couldn’t send an SOS — that’s it, no more — but it would have reverberating consequences,” he says.

* USCRI!  That is the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the federal contractor (one of the Top Ten) that subcontracts JVS.  We have written about them on many previous occasions as the State Department has shut down their affiliates in other cities.  Most recently they are the agency under fire in Bowling Green, KY

What no one tells you is that their former Vice President (and he was VP when all this was going down with JVS!) is now head of the entire federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Dept. of  Health and Human Services that is the major conduit of taxpayer money to the resettlement agencies.  Yes, the State Department admits the refugees to the US and gives the initial start-up funding, but the real money from Washington flows from Health and Human Services.  So, what do you think the chances are that the program will be investigated and reformed with a man in charge who couldn’t even keep one resettlement agency properly managed?  It is increasingly apparent to me that maintaining the bureaucracy is more important than meaningful reform or obviously the well-being of the refugees themselves.