Kansas refugee programs struggle as funding, resettlements dwindle

Samuel Dermas Habtemariam, a refugee from Eritrea, is a doctoral student at the University of Kansas. Resettlement agencies that help individuals like Habtermariam are strained by major cuts to the number of refugees being admitted to the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)
Samuel Dermas Habtemariam, a refugee from Eritrea, is a doctoral student at the University of Kansas. Resettlement agencies that help individuals like Habtemariam are strained by major cuts to the number of refugees being admitted to the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Samuel Dermas Habtemariam came to Wichita as a refugee of the East African country Eritrea with a PhD in teaching English in a foreign language, but even with such relevant education, he needed help navigating unfamiliar terrain.

Habtemariam, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, came to the United States after spending 10 years in Ethiopia, where he sought asylum from the totalitarian government of Eritrea. Saint Francis Migration Ministries helped him make the transition.

“Someone from Saint Francis was there to greet me when I got off the plane,” Habtemariam said. “They helped me get connected to the University of Kansas to earn my second PhD. These services were critical to my immersion here.”

Yeni Telles, director of International Ministries USA for Saint Francis Ministries, speaks about her immigration story at World Refugee Day in June. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)
Yeni Telles, director of International Ministries USA for Saint Francis Ministries, speaks about her immigration story at World Refugee Day in June. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Resettlement programs across the country, however, are feeling pressure as they provide these essential services. Major cuts to the number of refugees admitted to the United States reduced funding to the agencies, and COVID-19 further limited the migration of refugees.

Like Habtemariam, every refugee who enters the country goes through a resettlement agency. Refugees are expected to be self-sufficient within 90 days of arrival, and these agencies assist in easing what Habtemariam calls the “honeymoon period.”

Saint Francis Ministries is one of a small handful of organizations with a refugee resettlement program in Kansas.

“We manage all medical screening when the refugees first arrive, offer help with job applications, helping them overcome the language barrier,” said Yeni Telles, director of International Ministries USA, which oversees Saint Francis refugee programs in Kansas. “It could be something as small as them having a piece of mail that they don’t understand and we help make sure they understand it or aren’t scammed.”

In December 2019, however, Saint Francis suspended its resettlement program after President Donald Trump’s September 2019 recommendation to lower the limit on refugees admitted for the 2020 fiscal year to 18,000 — down from a previous record low of 30,000 in 2019. The cap was set at 85,000 during President Barack Obama’s final year in office.

“Unfortunately, this year we have not been able to resettle due to all these national changes,” Telles said. “There is a lot of uncertainty and concern about what will happen next. Will they reduce the program and the funding little by little?”

Resettlement agencies receive funding on a per refugee basis, and numbers in Kansas have decreased from 914 refugees resettled in 2016 to just 88 so far this year. As a result, many organizations are struggling to pay for office space, staff wages and resources with a reduced budget.

The decrease in funding forced Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas to cut back from five caseworkers to one. The International Rescue Committee closed its office in Garden City in 2018, moving much of its caseload to Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas as funding dwindled.

Debbie Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, said the number of refugees coming into southwest Kansas has declined from 100 refugees per year to around 20 now.

“It’s absolutely a major concern that we are losing funding for that program,” Snapp said.

  It can be a big culture shock moving to America, and most of all a lot of anxiety. How do you shop? How do you navigate? And refugees also need a lot of care for the trauma we may have, which requires special consideration.   – Samuel Dermas Habtemariam

When the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread in March, countries shut their borders and the United Nations halted refugee resettlements.

By suspending its settlement services in December, Saint Francis was prepared for a freeze.

“We are putting those resources toward our programs aiding refugees already in the state of Kansas,” said Angela Smith, vice president of international programs for Saint Francis Ministries. “Things may get a bit smoother after 90 days, but we stay in touch up to five years down the line because it can still be quite bumpy.”

Smith said the door is still open to resuming resettlements if funding improves.

“Our hope is eventually we will return to resettling, but that depends on the number of refugees the federal government decides to allow in, and how many are coming to Wichita,” Smith said.

With resettlement numbers trending down and COVID-19 still threatening the United States, the future of these services remains unclear. Resettlement agencies will get some clarity this fall when Trump is expected to announce a new figure for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

If the cap on refugees continues to decrease as it has in recent years — 110,000 in 2017, 45,000 in 2018 — more agencies like Saint Francis will need to halt resettlement programs.

“The refugee resettlement is such an important part of a humanitarian worldview that the United States was always welcoming to refugees and what they bring to our communities,” Snapp said. “We’re still hopeful we will return to having a good flow of refugee resettlements in southwest Kansas.”

Without the dedicated care from Saint Francis, Habtemariam said, he would have struggled at times. He believes losing these programs would be detrimental to the care of refugees.

“It can be a big culture shock moving to America, and most of all a lot of anxiety,” Habtemariam said. “How do you shop? How do you navigate? And refugees also need a lot of care for the trauma we may have, which requires special consideration. Agencies like Saint Francis are essential in keeping us from becoming overwhelmed.”