When Foibe Nibitanga got a ticket to a new life in the United States, she didn't expect the fear and hunger of the refugee camp to follow her to Kansas City.
The 39-year-old Burundi native leans forward in one of the worn, mismatched chairs in her Prospect Avenue apartment, trying to speak over the squeals and cries of toddlers who, in the absence of toys, play with couch cushions and a set of keys. With her sculpture-smooth skin and bright, searching eyes, she doesn't look like the mother of eight children or a woman who was hunted out of her home and has spent nearly her entire life as a refugee.
When civil war broke out in 1972 between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in that tiny central African country, Nibitanga was just 2 years old. Her Hutu family was a target of the Tutsis, who exterminated more than 100,000 Hutus during a violent three-month campaign. Like thousands of others, Nibitanga fled and eventually settled in neighboring Tanzania.
Speaking with authority but clutching a purse to her chest, Nibitanga explains that food shortages at the Tanzanian refugee camp meant that her children went hungry nearly every day. Criminal gangs crept into the camp at night, murdering residents in their sleep. To venture out for firewood put women at risk of rape, or worse.
Nibitanga got her family out.
On October 20, with their belongings crammed into plastic-mesh bags, her family arrived in Kansas City. It was after 11 p.m. when their caseworker from Jewish Vocational Service, the local nonprofit on Baltimore Avenue that contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees in Kansas City, Missouri, dropped them off at the shabby brick house on Prospect.
The large apartment had three bedrooms, each with thin blankets covering sturdy cots. Other provisions were few. The only food in the house, Nibitanga says, was bread — a starch that her children couldn't eat. According to the Burundian mother, the family's caseworker from JVS didn't return for several days. By then, they had already showed their bare refrigerator to their landlord and told him with hand gestures that they were hungry. They had also appealed to others in Kansas City's small Burundi community for food because they had no money to purchase it.
A week after they arrived, Nibitanga says, the caseworker handed her a check for $250. The next week, she provided another $250 and a trip to a check-cashing franchise. Then, she says, the money stopped. "It's almost four weeks now, and we've run short of necessities," she says on a chilly mid-November morning. "We've become ashamed of constantly begging for food from other Burundi people."
In her refrigerator, she has an onion and four packages of Kraft cheese slices. Her freezer contains a package of ground beef and a fish with all its scales. In their small bathroom, there's no evidence of shampoo or toothbrushes. Nibitanga's warm smile and polite demeanor are tested by her frustration. It has been nearly a month, and she hasn't received immunizations or medical care. She hasn't been enrolled for food stamps to feed her 10-person family — a social service for which refugees are eligible as soon as they arrive in the United States.
"I try to speak to my caseworker, but she speaks English," Nibitanga says. A family friend translates: "I speak Swahili. We don't connect."
Steve Weitkamp, director of refugee and immigration services for Jewish Vocational Service of Kansas City, disputes some of Nibitanga's story. The Burundi family must have been provided a hot meal upon their arrival, he says. That's standard procedure for all newcomers. Still, he calmly takes out a pad of paper and makes careful notes.
One of 350 affiliates around the country — and the only such organization in Kansas City, Missouri — JVS works with the U.S. Department of State to resettle refugees. Last year, the federal government gave JVS nearly $1.3 million to support 492 refugees.
It isn't enough.
At JVS' Center for New Americans, wooden boards painted with peace signs face out where windows should be. A vandal broke out several panes at this JVS office months ago, but the glass hasn't been replaced. Billowing above, a sheet of graying plastic covers the upper half of the blocklike building.
In the lobby, a teenage boy sits. He wears an awkward, nervous grin. His right leg is 12 inches shorter than his left, with a foot barely bigger than an infant's. Beside him, an elderly woman with a weathered face and a skeletal frame cups her chin in her hands and stares ahead vacantly.
The elderly Somali mother and her disabled son are among the 75,000 refugees who were accepted into the United States in 2009 — a tiny sliver of the millions of men and women displaced from their home countries because of war or persecution. Regina Wills, a spokeswoman for the State Department, says only the most vulnerable 1 percent are referred by the United Nations for resettlement. "The U.S. takes more than all other countries combined — more than 50 percent of refugees resettled worldwide," Wills says.
The process isn't as simple as hopping a flight to freedom. First, refugees who have passed a background check and medical screening are placed on a long State Department list. Every Wednesday morning, in Washington, D.C., representatives from 10 nonprofits go over that list; they then send refugees to 350 smaller agencies in cities across the nation. Kansas City's link to that Wednesday meeting is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a Virginia-based group that has been involved in the complex system for nearly 100 years and has overseen local resettlement.
"They're sitting around the table, and they have these lists of who's ready to travel, and someone will say, Here's a mother from Somalia with seven kids who all need medical services," Wills explains. "And somebody will say, We've got all the necessary services available at our affiliate in Boise, Idaho. Or our affiliate in Missouri."
For the better part of three decades, refugees in Kansas City were resettled by the Don Bosco Center. But in late 2003, about the time Nicholas Scielzo took over as president, the nonprofit opted out. "The board identified that if we could find a partner, a nonprofit, who would continue the refugee resettlement program, that Don Bosco would be better off focusing on other areas," Scielzo says.
Scielzo contacted JVS, a local organization founded in 1949 to resettle Holocaust survivors; in recent years, it has branched into other services for refugees, including immigration counseling and interpretation. Joy Foster, JVS' executive director, didn't want to see resettlement slip away in Kansas City. "Joy had an interest in assuming other responsibilities," Scielzo says. JVS took Don Bosco's place at the end of 2003.
With a wry smile, Foster says JVS expected to resettle no more than 120 refugees the first year. But in 2004, the United States agreed to take in 12,000 ethnic Bantu refugees from Somalia. With that national spike, JVS took in 326 refugees (some of whom were Somali Bantus).
"The first 30 days, it's heavy-duty," Foster says. "We have contact with the families all the time, getting through the core services in those first 90 days. We're following up, doing home visits, making sure everything is OK."
According to JVS' contract with the federal government, those core services include securing safe, clean housing and providing furniture, clothing and culturally appropriate food. Services also include transportation to job training and interviews for the first month and paying rent and utilities during the first 90 days.
To cover the costs for the first three months — from the refugees' electric bill to the nonprofit's program staff — the State Department gives JVS $900 per refugee. Of that, $425 must be spent directly on the immigrants; the other $475 helps support overhead. (Foster says JVS uses $450, instead of $425, on direct refugee services.) There are other funding streams that JVS can tap, including a Department of Health and Human Services matching-grant program that chipped in $850,000 last year. Safety-net programs add some cushion, too. Refugees, unlike other immigrants, are eligible for public benefits — food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — as soon as they arrive.
For household necessities, Foster shows off a warehouse at the back of the Center for New Americans. It's packed with racks of winter clothes, shelves with books and children's toys, and a diverse gallery of furniture. Foster opens a padlocked closet to reveal dishes, cleaning supplies and personal-hygiene items. "We have a very supportive Jewish community," she says with pride.
Daniel Marenga and his wife, Josephine Misago, Burundi refugees who came to Kansas City in 2007, talk over each other, overlapping their praises of the support they got from JVS. Food, medication, money — all their needs were met. Not a day went by that their caseworker didn't stop by, they say. "They did everything necessary to help us stand on our feet," Marenga says.
On this December evening, the scent of cooking meat wafts from the kitchen as four of the couple's six children diligently pore over notebooks at a table in the living room. The father, who supports his family with a job at the Seventh Street Casino in Kansas City, Kansas, boasts about the good grades his seventh-grade daughter recently brought home. This fall, Marenga became eligible for a green card. But when he returned to the JVS office for assistance with the paperwork, the people he'd worked with at the agency were gone.
Instead of receiving assistance, Marenga started helping his fellow refugees, who he says felt abandoned by JVS.
Between the broken slats in the tattered Venetian blinds hanging on the door of their apartment off Benton Avenue, Jean Ntahondereye and Josephine Nyandwi watch sleet melt into the patchy front lawn. To keep warm on this November afternoon, the two Burundian refugees bulk up with layers of clothing. Ntahondereye's sports jacket bulges with the girth of sweaters and shirts underneath. Nyandwi's legs stick out like flower stems from an array of different-colored skirts. They both pull black stocking caps down over their ears.
After more than two months in this apartment, they have no heat. Earlier in the day, they say, their landlord delivered a space heater. They pulled it out of the cardboard box and flipped switches to figure out, by trial and error, how to operate the hubcap-sized machine. This isn't their first issue with basic utilities, they say. When they arrived in September, there was no electricity in the apartment.
In their living room, a television that doesn't work faces a badly worn blue couch. Light streams in through the broken blinds, and a lamp with no shade sits on the mantel. Two chairs with orange price tags ($3) frame the table where the African immigrants sit and practice the English alphabet.
Ntahondereye and Nyandwi are Hutu. They also fled Burundi during the 1972 war and then spent much of their lives in refugee camps. While living in the Congo they met Marenga's family. They had no idea then that they would rely on Marenga's charity years later in Kansas City.
The couple says when they were taken to the JVS office in September, a staff member told them that the organization was financially strapped and unable to offer them much assistance. Nyandwi pulls out cooking pots that are flaked with rust. Ntahondereye has trouble seeing but says JVS staff told him that purchasing eyeglasses would be his responsibility. His family has no money left. They've exhausted the three checks supplied by JVS, amounting to $249. Now, they say, they're surviving on food stamps.
The mention of the family's caseworker makes Nyandwi scoff loudly and clap her hands together as if brushing dirt off her palms. They go weeks without any contact from JVS staff, she says. They travel on foot even to medical appointments, despite the cold. They went to the JVS office, but there wasn't a Swahili speaker there to translate their concerns.
By coincidence, though, Marenga was there, filing his green-card application.
Marenga's easy smile and warm laugh dissolve at the mention of Ntahondereye and Nyandwi. Their situation, he says with his eyes hardening, was nothing like his. They were isolated and struggling for basic necessities. "They didn't have any food," he says. "I personally went there and saw myself that they didn't have food in the house."
"I used to cook and take to them part of the food that was meant for my family," Josephine Misago adds. "I divided it up to keep them surviving."
A few weeks later, Marenga learned that a new family — Nibitanga's — had arrived on Prospect, and he went to visit. Marenga says he found Nibitanga's children listless and coiled in hunger.
"Nobody is creating a connection between us and the office," Marenga says of his fellow refugees. "There is total darkness at JVS."
Foster's eyes well with tears when she hears the concerns of the Burundian families. Between sighs, her voice drops to a near whisper. She admits that none of the caseworkers speak Swahili, the language most common to African immigrants. Only one JVS employee can translate.
Weitkamp says the constant flux of refugees in and out of apartments makes it difficult to keep up with utilities, such as heat and electricity.
Weitkamp and Foster insist that JVS has followed the letter of its federal contract, providing all necessary services. But both acknowledge that the organization is struggling to keep up. In 2009, JVS accepted 492 refugees, up from 400 in 2008. The $1.3 million it received from Washington, D.C., they say, isn't nearly enough to cover even basic necessities such as rent and utilities.
"The economics can be reduced to pretty cold math," Weitkamp says.
"We're already in the hole before they send them here," Foster adds.
Weitkamp offers a rough breakdown of the money for Ntahondereye and Nyandwi. The feds gave them $1,350, he says. Two months' rent gobbled up $900; $200 went to household items; and another $249 was given directly to the clients in three small checks. Then the money was gone.
Wills, the State Department spokeswoman, says federal funds aren't supposed to be the sole source of support and explains that refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership. "We figure they will also use that [money] for fundraising. At least that's traditionally been the case. But what's happened recently, with the recession, is that the flaws in the system have really been highlighted. We recognize that a lot of refugees are having a lot of trouble."
So does the White House. Last summer, the National Security Council appointed an interagency task force to come up with recommendations, due in February, on how to revamp the resettlement system.
Foster hopes that will mean more money for agencies like JVS. "We understand that it's a public-private partnership and we do our part with that," Foster says, her eyes again brimming with tears. "But JVS has been very much challenged this year, and we've managed to put a lot of resources in this program. It's been the hardest eight months of resettlement I've ever been involved in."
JVS doesn't have a development director or full-time fundraiser on staff, Foster says, and no specific campaign is in place to raise public awareness or seek private donors for the refugee program. Instead, program directors write grant proposals for every service JVS offers — resettlement is just one. In 2009, she and Weitkamp submitted seven new proposals for refugee funding and got four of them, adding $160,000 to the strained budget. The $128,000 that JVS raised in 2009 from nongrant donations is a figure derived largely from values assigned to donated goods and supplies, not cash.
Karen Janas thinks that JVS — and Foster — could do better. After nearly 30 years with the organization, Janas resigned her position as director of the refugee program in April. Janas says the hardships that have been passed on to the refugees could have been avoided with more aggressive planning. "Twenty thousand dollars would be nothing to raise. In the Jewish community, it could be done like that," she says, pausing to snap her fingers, "if it had been a goal." She says she left because of Foster's management style and what she calls a hostile work environment at JVS.
She wasn't the only one. Another longtime employee, Ralph Levy, resigned his position as director of the sheltered workshop and IT in March. Levy summed up his concerns in a letter to the organization's board of directors in June. He suggested that whistle-blowers face retaliation. "Most recently," he wrote, "three employees who had presented information to the executive concerning inadequate housing for refugees were terminated after a newspaper article pointed out these very deficiencies." Levy cited concerns that the organization was "accepting excessive numbers of refugees that the organization was unable to support." He also wrote that some employees had been prohibited from including overtime hours on their time sheets.
That last claim is now in the hands of the Circuit Court of Jackson County. In October, three former JVS caseworkers in the resettlement program filed a lawsuit alleging that, for nearly two years, they worked overtime for which they were not paid. "Some of them work 24/7, and I'm not kidding," Janas says. Many, she adds, were making up for gaps in funding by opening their own wallets.
In 2004, when JVS had fewer than 330 refugees, there were four caseworkers. Right now, JVS has six — one of whom handles only refugees with significant medical issues — who will support a predicted 450 refugees this year. About the pending litigation, Foster will say only that JVS has not violated the law.
Habum Woldetatios peered through the peephole when somebody came knocking at his apartment on the morning of November 1. The newly arrived refugee from Ethiopia didn't recognize the man at his doorstep. After several minutes, the stranger disappeared, and the six-unit complex just east of Benton Boulevard was quiet.
At 8:30 p.m. the same day, the 29-year-old woke to a loud crash. Suddenly, the knocking stranger was standing in his bedroom, pointing a handgun at him and his wife and their 1-year-old daughter, and shouting in a language that the African natives could barely understand.
He demanded money, but the immigrants couldn't understand. As the family sprawled on the bed, the robber ransacked the apartment. Habum later told police that he wasn't sure if the man had taken anything. They didn't have much to steal.
Carrying their plastic bags stamped "IOM: International Organization for Migration," the family fled to a nearby apartment building on Benton. A sign on the building's front door advises tenants to keep it closed, but it's rarely locked. By dusk, the chipped purple paint and fraying carpet recede into the unlighted hallway.
Upstairs, in a third-floor apartment, a recently arrived Somali refugee says she remembers the night when Woldetatios frantically knocked on doors in her building. "We are scared even in the daytime," she says. "We don't open the doors because of safety."
Less than a mile north, on Prospect Avenue, Nibitanga shares that fear.
On November 8, Nibitanga's brother-in-law, Niyondavyi Mandaro, was at the family's apartment. He heard a series of bangs at the back door, she says. When he went to investigate, he found himself facing a man wielding a knife. According to the police report, the intruder kicked his way inside, then lashed out with the knife, cutting Mandaro on the forehead.
The ambulance gave the then 22-year-old first aid, but the cut didn't require stitches. The next day, Nibitanga says, a relative went to the JVS office to express concern about security and ask that her family be relocated.
Ten days later, nothing has changed.
"They never responded to my request," Nibitanga says.
Weitkamp says he's aware of the Ethiopian family who was robbed — he had the family moved to the neighboring building that same night. (Ntahondereye and Nyandwi, in addition to at least one other refugee family, still live in the burglarized building.) He's also familiar with the attempted robbery on Prospect. He emphasizes that the man injured wasn't a JVS-sponsored family member and that a caseworker was there when the ambulance arrived.
Weitkamp says many apartments are out of the question; most landlords won't take a tenant who doesn't have a Social Security number, a job or any U.S. work history. Bobbi Baker & Friends is one of the rental companies with which JVS has a standing relationship, but the concentration of refugees in the Northeast section of the city isn't based solely on its preponderance of Bobbi Baker properties. Foster says JVS also tries to keep groups of refugees from the same country in the same neighborhood to build community. Some who are placed elsewhere — say, in the Northland — move back to the Northeast to be closer to people from their native land, she says.
Like a scorekeeper presiding over a losing contest, Weitkamp keeps a whiteboard on the north wall of his small office. It's a mid-November afternoon, but the dates for new refugee arrivals reach well into December. Already there are 15 names, representing 23 new refugees.
According to Weitkamp, federal bureaucrats are gambling by sending this many people to Kansas City.
"This is just irresponsible," he says with a wince, looking up at the board.
Over October and November, he says, JVS received more than 100 refugees. The staff training that Weitkamp has been meaning to do since he arrived at JVS in August keeps getting pushed off.
"We haven't had a breather," Foster says. "We hired a new staffperson and want to get them trained, but they end up landing and going to work because we have all these people arriving."
Every year, Foster explains, USCRI — the Virginia nonprofit that acts as the conduit between JVS and the State Department — tells its affiliates how many refugees it plans to send in the coming fiscal year.
"In June, we originally projected 420, and then USCRI asked us if we would raise that to 450," Foster says. "They have a network number that they project and they try to work that out among their affiliates."
If Kansas City cuts back, Weitkamp says, other affiliates across the country will have to pick up the slack — or the national program will be scaled back or eliminated. "It's not as though we couldn't send an SOS — that's it, no more — but it would have reverberating consequences," he says.
In recent months, though, Foster says she has asked for a slowdown in new arrivals. Other cities are going further than that.
"Detroit and Fort Wayne, Indiana, the resettlement agencies from those areas have said, 'We can't handle any more; don't put any more here,'" Wills says.
But Weitkamp is quick to follow up on the families' complaints when he hears them in mid-November. Within three days, a caseworker has visited Ntahondereye and Nyandwi. The heat is working, and the couch has been replaced, too.
Nibitanga is scheduled for job-search counseling at JVS and immunizations. The lack of food stamps, the caseworker says, was a glitch with the state, not JVS.
Still, even in the best of circumstances, Weitkamp emphasizes that refugees can't expect too much. "If their bottom line is they want to be taken care of, they should be looking at Scandinavia," he says. "They should go to Sweden. What this country offers is not that. What we do offer, to a greater extent than anywhere else, is tremendous opportunity."
That opportunity still seems distant to Nibitanga, sitting in her Prospect apartment, wearing orange sandals and a turquoise T-shirt in the November chill. Betrayal and resignation are in her voice when she admits that she's scared. The first few weeks in the United States have taught her to expect little. Here, as in the refugee camps, she focuses on survival.