Kirt Lewis directs the Sacramento field office of World Relief, one of four resettlement agencies responsible for delivering federal aid and services to Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders arriving here. He also coordinates the Sacramento Refugee Forum, a group of about 30 people from government, schools and nonprofits that meets periodically to discuss resettlement issues.
The 41-year-old Army veteran, who served in Iraq, addressed some of the issues raised by Afghan refugees who say they are being placed in substandard housing, and that the refugee agencies siphon off too much of their government aid for furniture and other items.
Q: If a family feels unsafe, how do you handle it?
A: We check the sheriff’s website to track criminal activity in the area, and if there’s a lot of police activity that’s not the place we’re looking to put a family even if it’s affordable. But crime is everywhere. We had placed a family where there was a lot of police action in the complex that was making them uncomfortable and the air conditioning wasn’t functioning, and the landlord wasn’t responding, and we ended up moving the family out.
Q: Many refugees complain about roaches and bedbugs. How do you prevent that?
A: If we notice some kind of infestation issue we address that with the apartment complex before the refugees arrive. But it will take one to two weeks for the full bug treatment to take effect, and families may notice dead roaches on the floor.
We had a major bedbug outbreak a couple of years ago and worked with the apartment managers, and all the resettlement agencies contributed funds to do a full treatment. We have the option of moving people out if the apartment is unbearable.
Q: Many refugees complain they would rather have more welcome money in cash. How much does each SIV holder and his family members get, and where does the rest of the money go?
A: According to the State Department’s Cooperative Agreement, each agency is allocated $1,125 to manage on behalf of each client. We spend some of that to secure them an apartment and household items, including a kitchen kit. Of that, $925 is the minimum that must be spent on any client.
For sanitary reasons, we now buy them new beds, mattresses and box springs, and if they have small children, we buy them new car seats. Whatever money’s left over, we give to the client. Other agencies call the extra $200 “flex money” and may use it to help other SIVs with even greater needs. A family of nine has a larger pool of money than a single person or couple.
Q: Some refugees have complained that their welcome money has been spent on used or worn furniture. What’s your response?
A: We’re a Christian organization that works with churches, and we tell people, ‘no junk for Jesus.’ I’ve got a 2,000-foot warehouse with donated couches and chairs, and we work hard to receive quality donations to limit the use of welcome money.
Other resettlement agencies may not have the same resources. What we don’t get donated, we typically purchase used, but as a last resort we buy brand new.
Q: Who are your refugee resettlement workers, and what kind of qualifications do they have?
A: Every local resettlement office submits an abstract to our headquarters and on to the State Department that communicates their language capabilities and how many people they can resettle. The primary Afghan SIV holder speaks English perfectly, and we have staff members who speak their language.
We rely on a combination of staff, volunteers or contract employees. Several of our case workers are refugees themselves. The resettlement agencies are made up of a lot of good people trying to do their best under difficult circumstances.