High Barriers Put Refugees at Risk for Homelessness

By September 16, 2010May 11th, 2017No Comments

Tirth Raj Pokhrel, right, sits at a computer while working his English speaking skills during an ESL class at ReWA (Refugee Women’s Alliance) in Seattle. Pokhrel, 42, is a Bhutanese refugee. (Joshua Trujillo,


InvestigateWest interns Emily Holt and Cassandra Little, both 2010 graduates of Seattle University, spent three months working on a project about family homelessness as part of Seattle University’s Journalism Fellowship on Family Homelessness. Seattle University received funding for the fellowship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. InvestigateWest’s full project on family homelessness will be published this fall.

InvestigateWest reporter Carol Smith worked closely with Holt and Little as they developed sources. Smith, who has years of experience reporting on complex social issues, mentored the Seattle University fellows as they explored different aspects of homelessness. Their work took each of them into the field where they spent hours observing and interviewing subjects for their stories. Here’s a look at some of their work:

By Emily Holt

Tirth Raj Pokhrel pushed his resume across the table like anyone else in need of work.

For the 42-year-old Bhutanese refugee, the hope of employment was a lifeline that could mean the difference between keeping a roof over his family’s head, and homelessness.

Pokhrel  had volunteered in a nursing home and was training to be a nursing assistant. But at the end of July, Pokhrel and his family were cut off from public assistance at a time when even service and manual labor jobs are hard to find for someone with limited English.

With his wife at home in Seattle taking care of his parents and two children, one of whom is disabled and in a wheelchair, Pokhrel’s family represents a community of refugee and immigrant families with limited language skills who are at risk for future homelessness.

It’s an especially invisible population, and one that faces huge barriers that range from  learning English to dealing with culture shock and the aftermath of trauma.

In 2009, the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWa), where Pokhrel has been attending ESL classes for the last nine months, reported a 25 to 30 percent increase in homeless refugees and immigrants. Because refugees and immigrants are often placed in transitional government-sponsored housing or double up with relatives, they are not included in Washington’s One Night Count and often go unreported.

When they do seek help, much of the mainstream system is not linguistically prepared to help them. Washington’s 211 telephone hotline for housing services, for example, offers referral support in English and Spanish, but East Africans and Southeast Asians, who reflect a greater linguistic diversity, make up a large fraction of those in need of housing assistance.

The Department of Social and Health Service’s Strategic Plan for 2007-2011 reports over 40 percent of people receiving Refugee Cash Assistance in fiscal year 2005 came from East African countries. Another 28 percent came from Eastern Europe, and 13 percent from Russia.

The DSHS reports many of these immigrants have low English proficiency and low levels of education, which can pose barriers to self-sufficiency. But the state’s requirements for translation services, offered in Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Korean, and Russian, no longer reflect the demographics of new immigrants.

Someone like Pokhrel, whose native language is Nepali, has little choice but to learn English in order to understand letters from DSHS, healthcare providers, and future employers.

The responsibility for helping recent immigrants and refugees falls to agencies such as ReWA, and Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS), which combined, offer case managers and translators in more than 40 languages, and to El Centro de la Raza and Consejo, which help low-income and immigrant Latino families.

Tesfaye Sisay, right, a native of Ethiopia, works on his English speaking skills during an ESL class at ReWA (Refugee Women’s Alliance) in Seattle. Sisay and his family of six are living the the basement of a family member’s home. (Joshua Trujillo,

One of the ironies of helping these populations find stable housing is that they often do not fit the traditional definition for “homelessness.” Immigrant and refugee families often don’t hesitate to take in extended families members in need of housing. But doubling up or couch surfing can lead to overcrowding, stressful situations for families and developmental delays for children already in crisis.

Tesfaye Sisay, another ESL student at ReWa, worked as a driver, teacher, and carpenter in his native Ethiopia, but since moving to the U.S. three months ago, he and his family of six have been living in the downstairs of his relatives’ house until they can afford to move. During this summer’s heat wave, the family’s tight quarters and discomfort made Sisay realize he doesn’t want to inconvenience his family for much longer.

“I want housing, I want work,” Sisay said, “I want to live here.”

Sisay can read and write English well, but has difficulty speaking it. He enrolled in ReWa’s classes with the hope of improving his chances of getting a job, but still aren’t sure where he is headed.

“I don’t know who can help me,” Sisay said, “Right now, the government supports me.”

Nastejo Jama, a young single mother from Somalia who has been in the U.S. for five years and has taken ESL classes for two months, echoes Sisay’s sentiments.

“It’s just me and the government,” Jama said.

With her husband in Kenya and her family in Texas, most of her social and emotional support in Seattle comes from ReWa.  Jama is looking for  work that will not aggravate an old back injury.

Like Sisay, Pokhrel wants to make a self-sustaining life here.

Pokhrel’s son, who attends Seattle Community College, can find improved healthcare for his disability in the U.S. and Pokhrel intends to work toward becoming a citizen.

But the choice to stay can bring more complications than comforts. Staying, for refugees and immigrants, who may have experienced anything from political persecution, homelessness, hunger, sexual and domestic violence and racism, can also bring an onset of social and emotional disorders and problems that are difficult to treat from a purely Western perspective. Refugee and immigrant women across the U.S. experience domestic violence at rates of 30 to 50 percent, putting them at risk for unstable housing.

ReWa, ACRS, El Centro de la Raza and Consejo hire leaders from within their own communities, but Natividad E. Lamug, an education coordinator in ACRS’ Behavioral Health Program, said there are still higher barriers to self-sufficiency for immigrant and refugees, even with their own leaders helping them.

Naty’s clients, many of whom had long and difficult migrations, have witnessed horrors that range from war to rape to cannibalism. As a result, many suffer from a variety of disorders that might appear to be standard PTSD, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but have no real counterpart in standard, Western psychological texts.

“There are no equivalents of these mental illnesses in mainstream culture,” Lamug said. “Only symptoms, no translation.”

For Asian immigrants in particular, Lamug said mental illnesses can lead to ostracization, homelessness, and shame.

To help their clients acculturate, Lamug and her colleagues encourage them to tell their stories of pre and post-migration. ACRS’s case managers and psychologists are “culturally competent” to help their clients interpret these stories, Lamug said. Such story-telling can begin the healing process.

Holly Merrill, ESL and WorkFirst instructor at ReWa, also encourages her adult students to tell their stories. In Merrill’s first-level class, many immigrants and refugees are pre-literate and must learn to associate the written word with meaning, often while dealing with their own crises outside of the classroom.

At the second and third-level ESL classes at ReWa, activities are centered on acquiring the vocabulary of the workforce, learning practical vocabulary, including words for transportation and occupations. But in the beginning, it’s often more about gaining the courage to use English.

“I try to make them believe they have something to say,” Merrill said. “We talk about what it means to be a survivor. I try to make them see themselves as survivors.”

Perched on a stool in the front of class, Merrill leads her students through the alphabet. The students often cluster together by nationality and Nepalese and Somali is mixed with English. But within sometimes only a few months of classes, students in third level ESL are mixing with peers from other counties, sharing their hopes for employment and their children’s education.

Many of her students could tell their story of survival in their native language, but learning English becomes more than a tool for accessing social services. It’s also a way of telling others their story and building a community that will help them stabilize in housing.

Like Merrill, Lamug and her colleagues see the acculturation and English acquisition process as just that—a process. Though Lamug can recognize symptoms of trauma in her initial interactions with a client, much is hidden until they can learn to open up and share their story.

Lamug and her colleagues focus on what is positive and familiar in their clients’ lives—ACRS, for example, offers Eastern-based health practices such as meditation, cupping, tai chi and acupuncture.

When an immigrant’s primary concerns are to stay housed, fed and safe, it can be difficult to maintain ties to native cultures.

James at El Centro de La Raza said her clients’ Spanish literacy can atrophy as they learn English, acquire work and become American citizens. El Centro, like Consejo, offers a wide array of activities to strengthen and maintain Latino culture in Seattle.

For Pokhrel, simple matters—housing, food, and education – are his most pressing concerns.

Pokhrel recently found on-call, part-time employment with an industrial cleaning company. Though the public assistance that formerly paid for their rent has been cut, Pokhrel is confident that between his part-time work and his wife’s caregiving, they will continue to pay the rent. His family will continue to receive food stamps from DSHS until December.

Previously employed as a security guard and water management specialist in refugee camps in India and Nepal, Pokhrel is not intimidated by the physical labor.

“I can handle the work,” he said.

Though he is still looking for another job while attending English classes at ReWa, Pokhrel is less worried about the immediate future and can focus on the long-term. His two high-school age children are about to finish and hope to go to college.

“Before we were working to survive,” Pokhrel said, “Now I am working for my children’s education.”

Carol Smith

Carol Smith


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