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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.