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When Amaal Al-Mifraji arrived in San Diego in February, the worst of her troubles appeared to be over. She and her two children, ages 17 and 20, settled into a small one-bedroom apartment in a sprawling complex in El Cajon, one among the thousands of refugee families that have arrived in San Diego County from Iraq in the eight years since the start of the war.
At last the 60-year-old mother, whose natural facial expression is one of constant concern, could try to put past her the trauma of the last eight years. She saw her sister murdered and her husband kidnapped by members of the Mahdi Army in 2006. He never resurfaced. She presumes him dead. But she couldn’t risk letting the threats against her son’s life materialize too, so she took her family and fled Baghdad for neighboring Syria. They lived there until this year, when they were admitted to the United States as refugees.
Like all refugees, she got a one-time payment from the U.S. State Department to help her family get settled. Many refugee families come with nothing. They flee violence in haste. As luck would have it, the federal government last year more than doubled the amount it gives newly arrived families, to $1,100 per person — money meant to help them find an apartment, furnish it and pay for other basic necessities. Al-Mifraji’s family of three got $3,300 — just enough to cover a deposit and first month’s rent on their $795 monthly apartment, buy a new couch, three beds and a coffee table. Aside from the used television that was a gift, they own little else.
What they didn’t know was that the higher grant had bumped them over the income limits to qualify for CalWORKs, the state family welfare program. Many refugee families, lacking English or transferable job skills, rely on welfare during their initial years. But a family must have less than $2,000 in income or assets to qualify. County workers considered the $3,300 income, even though Al-Mifraji had already spent it. Her application was denied.
That should not have happened.
County welfare workers should have instead considered her for an alternative program that the federal government designed specifically for refugees, which doesn’t count that federal resettlement grant against them.
Instead, the county has been routinely denying refugee applications for welfare and not enrolling those families in the alternative program, called Refugee Cash Assistance, which provides the same cash payments as CalWORKs but is funded from a special pot of state money for refugees. Since the start of this year, resettlement workers say, the mistake has affected dozens of refugee families’ applications, leaving some of the county’s poorest and most vulnerable without the cash aid they’re entitled to receive.
“We have had families that are very legitimately and severely negatively impacted by this,” said Kasra Movahedi, community and economic development manager for the International Rescue Committee, one of San Diego’s four resettlement agencies. “It hasn’t been positive.”
County officials acknowledge the mistake and say they’re working to fix it. But they don’t yet know how many refugees were improperly denied.
In the meantime, Al-Mifraji’s family sits on the brink of homelessness, just weeks after arriving in the United States. She has applied again for assistance, but her rent is due in 11 days. It’s rent she doesn’t have, and won’t, unless her application is approved. Refugee advocates say there are other families in similar situations.
But unlike many Iraqis in El Cajon who may fall on hard times, Al-Mifraji has no family or friends to take her in. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said through an interpreter, sitting in her sparse living room, on the brown couch still crisp with newness.
The larger federal resettlement grant might not have been a problem for Al-Mifraji somewhere else. In California counties other than San Diego, welfare workers are trained to automatically refer refugees to the alternative cash aid program if their initial resettlement grant makes them ineligible for welfare.
The federal government funds the program because it recognizes that its resettlement grant may push many refugee families over the traditional income limits to qualify for assistance.
But until recently, that wasn’t an issue in San Diego County, which has handled refugee assistance differently because its refugee community is so large. San Diego has four federally contracted resettlement agencies that help newly arrived refugees adjust during their first months in the United States. Until late 2009, those agencies, not the county, were in charge of administering cash assistance to new refugee families for their first eight months.
The federal government funneled assistance money directly to the resettlement agencies with the hope that the agencies would be better equipped than the county to help refugees, who often have no English skills or experience navigating red tape.
But in late 2009, that money mostly stopped flowing to the local agencies. The federal government wanted refugee families to apply for welfare directly to San Diego County, just like in every other California county.
It’s still unclear why, but for most of 2010, the county approved refugee welfare applications, even for families with the larger resettlement payments that should have made them ineligible. Then this year, workers started counting the resettlement payment as income and just started denying applications.
The resettlement agencies took notice, and started pressuring the county to fix the problem.
Kim Forrester, assistant deputy director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, which administers the CalWORKs and food stamps program, said it wasn’t until last month that state officials told the county it should be enrolling families ineligible for CalWORKs in the special program for refugees.
“We’re going to have it fully implemented within 30 days,” Forrester said. She said her department would identify any families that were inappropriately denied and issue their payments retroactively.
It’s also not clear why it took the county a year to realize it should have been enrolling them in the alternative refugee program. But when the denials finally started early this year, resettlement agencies didn’t know what to do.
The International Rescue Committee started loaning refugees money to cover their rent, Movahedi said. The Alliance for African Assistance, which resettled Al-Mifraji, did the same. But that can only go on for so long.
Refugee arrivals to San Diego County have been slow in recent months, but the resettlement agencies are expecting an upswing of new arrivals in the coming months.
Until the county fixes the problem and trains workers to enroll refugees in Refugee Cash Assistance, more families could be denied, and find themselves in situations like Al-Mifraji’s.
On Monday, speaking through an interpreter, she wondered out loud about what she might do to cover next month’s rent if her new CalWORKs application isn’t approved in time.
Her daughter, a wiry 17-year-old with curly hair, is a student. Her son, a 20-year-old with no English skills and a shy, jovial demeanor, has not found work.
She might have to sell the couch she bought just six weeks ago, she said.
“What else can I do?”