Before a refugee can resettle in America, they find themselves in a State Department vetting process that can take between 18 months and numerous years to complete. After which, many of the real challenges begin.
Refugees are defined by their status as living in a foreign land, unable or unwilling to return home because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Political scientist Galya Ben-Arieh says many — even those refugees with advanced college degrees — end up in minimum-wage jobs. Much of life becomes a struggle: hurdles include renting an apartment without a credit history, learning English while having to hold down two or more jobs to cover expenses, and social isolation.
“The United States government has made a promise to offer refugees a better life, and we are not keeping that promise because of the way policies are structured and implemented,” says Ben-Arieh, director of Northwestern’s Center for Forced Migration Studies (CFMS). “Knowing and understanding the reality of these populations is important for determining how best to assist them.”
Founded by Ben-Arieh in 2011, the CFMS engages in research projects that explore the lives of refugees and the policies that affect them. In 2015 she launched a research program to harness the potential of the United States refugee resettlement program to contribute to the global refugee crisis. With the rise of populism and backlash against refugee admissions in the United States and Europe, Ben-Arieh joined a multinational, transdisciplinary study of refugees and human rights in Europe. Her research contributes to local responses and lived experience of refugee policies.
Through a local project on refugees living in Chicago’s North Shore , Ben-Arieh is exploring the potential of community partnerships in developing public support for the refugee admissions program that has been slashed to a historic low with only 16,000 refugees admitted this year. The first wave of this research explored aspects of housing and mental health. Phase one was begun a year ago by a pair of students through Northwestern’s Undergraduate Research Assistant Program. Ben-Arieh’s team has since grown to include two Political Science Farrell Fellows and a recent graduate from Swarthmore College, who will be researching housing and employment to support the project. Kellogg Social Impact students are also contributing, as are two teams of Brady Scholars.
On July 15, initial research results, combined with political science, business, and economic studies previously completed at Northwestern, were used to support a new effort funded by the Rotary Club of Wilmette. The Community Partnerships for Settlement Strategies (COMPASS) is designed to promote social and economic wellbeing of refugees in the Evanston area through a microloan program. COMPASS microloan amounts will vary — the first loan will be granted this fall in the amount of $7,000— and can be used toward education and housing, enabling a refugee family to find better employment, repay initial travel expenses, build credit, and ensure housing stability in Evanston.
“One goal is to enable each family to reach its full potential and to re-establish public trust that our refugee program is fulfilling the promise of humanitarian protection,” says Mariana Alfar, an Evanston resident and member of the Rotary club of Wilmette.
The microloan program will be one form of support offered by the CFMS-led University-community partnership that will contribute knowledge, leadership and support to the Evanston community through a Refugee Resettlement Strategies Project that will offer training programs, mentorship, and educational coaching.
“It’s exciting to partner with the University to help launch this initiative,” says Alfar, who, for the past year, has worked with Ben-Arieh to develop COMPASS. “Northwestern and Rotary are excellent institutions that have a history in making the world a better place.
The idea for COMPASS began when Ben-Arieh realized that there was an immediate need to apply the research she was doing on refugee resettlement locally. Resettled refugee families in Evanston were being evicted from their homes and people were struggling to find ways to help. She realized most people didn’t understand the resettlement process and so she began working with Alfar to develop a model for a University-community partnership to address the challenges of hosting and promoting the stability, full potential, and well-being of refugees in the Evanston community
Northwestern student Ruth Teklu, a rising junior, presented initial research results on refugee demographics, housing, and mental health accessibility and capacity to the Evanston Task Force on Refugees in March.
This summer, two Farrell Fellows, Dorothy Calba and Avery Goods, are assisting with her research. Madeleine Pattis, a recent graduate of Swarthmore College, has also joining the COMPASS team, along with Kinar Prasad, a student at New Trier High School and Pia Baldwin Edwards, a student at Evanston Township High School, who are creating CFMS databases for the program.
“One objective is to see COMPASS loans helping break the cycle of poverty,” says Ben-Arieh, who recently conducted a Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop in part to create an interactive annotation of the 1980 Refugee Act. “Statistics show that, for refugee adults, the first years after arriving to the United States are a time of great difficulty in terms of finding affordable housing and suitable employment.”
A 2017 study by Notre Dame researchers indicates that during the first eight years living in the United States, refugees receive more government benefits than they pay in taxes; however, by year 20 the inverse is true.
“The data show that if we can develop an intervention early on, we may be able to eliminate the burden to taxpayers far sooner,” says Ben-Arieh. “COMPASS represents an exciting transdisciplinary research approach and substantial community partnership that will both enhance research opportunities for Northwestern students and better the Evanston community.