April 19, 2010
Below is an article published by fresnobee.com :
Almost four years ago, Ying Yang and his wife, Bee Lor, left a Thai refugee camp and followed thousands of their fellow Hmong refugees to the United States.
It's been a struggle for the Fresno couple as each works to assimilate into American society and secure that most basic of necessities in this nation -- a job.
Now Yang and Lor, as well as more than a thousand other refugees who came to the Fresno area from Wat Tham Krabok, face a deadline: A five-year lifetime limit on welfare could soon cut off payments they need to meet basic needs.
The first wave of refugees began hitting the five-year limit last June and each month more are seeing their welfare assistance end.
"These refugees really need help," said Pao Ly, a staff analyst with the Fresno County Department of Social Services.
About a year after arriving in Fresno, Ying Yang landed a job carving designs into wooden doors. As the economy declined in 2008, Yang was laid off.
The journey: At a glance
2003: The United States agrees to take about 15,000 Hmong refugees stuck in political limbo at a Buddhist temple after other refugee camps in Thailand closed.
June 2004: The first wave of refugees come to Fresno and other cities across the nation.
2006: More than 2,300 refugees — about 45% of them adults — have come to Fresno County.
The Rev. Sharon Stanley, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, said jobless refugees facing the end of welfare payments could become homeless, turning a poverty problem into a humanitarian crisis for Fresno.
Stanley said this isn't about welfare. The Hmong refugees want to work. But the jobs just aren't there for refugees with limited English and relevant work experience.
She said this is an opportunity for local employers to make a difference and hire the refugees.
"This is a call to look around see what we can do now to invest in our whole community for the future," Stanley said.
Yang, 35, and Lor, 25, both had work for a time. But both have been laid off and now are unemployed.
So far, the government has been there to help them with food stamps, health care for their seven children -- and cash assistance, or welfare.
Yang and Lor's struggles are similar to others who came to Fresno from Wat Tham Krabok.
Ly said fewer than 30% have been able to find jobs and even most of those have not been able to earn enough to cover basic expenses. That means they have been receiving partial assistance from the state.
Whether a person receives full or partial welfare payments, the state counts that time against the five-year lifetime benefit limit.
Few of the little more than 1,000 adult refugees -- possibly as low as 15%, though hard numbers are hard to come by -- have been able to get steady employment at a pay level high enough to get them totally off government welfare assistance, said government and aid officials.
Not only is unemployment rampant, but the refugees face added struggles because many have not mastered English. In this sour economy, where every job is precious, the Hmong refugees are at a terrible disadvantage, said aid agencies and government officials.
"It hits them the hardest because of the language barrier," said Paula Cha, employment director at Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
Coming to America
For years, about 15,000 Hmong refugees had languished in Wat Tham Krabok after other refugee camps in Thailand closed. They had been stuck in political limbo at the Buddhist temple, with no country willing to take them.
In 2003, the United States agreed to take the refugees, and in June 2004 the first wave came to Fresno and other cities across the nation. By 2006, more than 2,300 refugees -- about 45% of them adults -- had come to Fresno County.
When they arrived, a system was in place ready to help them adjust, said Stanley.
There were English classes and, later, citizenship classes. Stanley's nonprofit organization provided assistance with clothes and furniture. A program known as Jobs First gave the refugees eight weeks of employment preparation training. There were classes on housing and how it works in the United States.