When Della Lamb was started by United Methodist Women in 1897, it was focused on breaking the cycle of poverty wherever it was needed most. At that time the primary population being served was Italian immigrants. It’s main office is located on Woodland Avenue in Kansas City, in a neighborhood where it is uncommon to see windows that aren’t covered by steel bars. Three years ago the agency started fulfilling it’s mission in a new way: resettling the refugee.
The agency has been doing adult education, primarily for immigrants, since the 1990s. It also established a charter school for immigrant children that has grown to 550 students who speak 19 different languages. It offers numerous programs for people living in poverty, so it was well-equipped to serve in refugee resettlement. For a couple of years, it did that very well.
Since last fall, however, the refugee resettlement program has been in turmoil. The flow of refugees coming in has been slowed to such a degree that Della Lamb has had to lay off staff. It can be difficult to manage fluctuating numbers.
“You can’t just hire someone off the street and start them off as an effective refugee case worker,” said executive vice president Judy Akers.
People often confuse immigrants with refugees, which have a very different status. People crossing a boarder are called asylum seekers. Refugee status must be earned. When an asylum seeker enters a refugee camp, he or she is asked a series of questions. The person will be asked the same questions later in the process – perhaps years later. If the answers don’t match exactly, the person may not qualify for refugee status. The background screening form is eight pages long. Public relations director, John Hyde gets frustrated at political rhetoric around refugees, which takes advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge and tries to drive fear.
“We’re being told that we don’t know who these people are. We know more about these people than anyone,” said Hyde.
Making it through the resettlement process can take years. “It’s prayers and hope that drives them all the way through it,” Akers said. “The life of the refugee is based on hope.”
Last year Della Lamb was resettling as many as 110 refugees in a month. So far this year they had 25 in January, 13 in February, 10 in March, seven in April and eight in May. Della Lamb Refugee Resettlement Director Abdul Akbar used to have a staff of seven. Now he has a staff of three.
“Temporarily cutting off the number of refugees is an indirect way of getting the program to kill itself,” Akbar said.
Della Lamb receives $1,125 per person to meet the basic needs of the refugees for the first 90 days. Rent for a family-sized house can cost about $850 per month. Refugees usually find employment at $9 to $11 per hour, so Della Lamb hopes to have two or three people in the family working in order for them to have enough income to meet their needs. One automotive part manufacturing company has hired 23 refugees from Della Lamb. Of the company’s 250 employees, 40 are refugees. It can be a challenging transition.
When President Obama opened to door to a surge of 10,000 new refugees, the first one came to Della Lamb. They usually try to keep their work with people low key to give them an opportunity to ease into the culture of their new neighborhood without a lot of pressure. In this case, the U.S. ambassador greeted the refugee with Kansas City Royals baseball-wear at the airport. There were 42 news stories in 10 days. The refugee who was being resettled had been living in a steel storage unit for three years.
“We’ve seen clients who have walked across a desert to escape a country and then spent several years in a refugee camp,” Hyde said. “They might be 35 years old and have never held a pencil.”
Della Lamb used to receive financial apportionment support from the Missouri Conference, but that stopped several years ago, and local churches were encouraged to form relationships with Della Lamb, and to support the agency directly rather than through apportionments. As a National Mission Institution of the United Methodist Women, Della Lamb receives $18,000 per year, but much more importantly, being an NMI provides liability insurance.
“That is a six-figure gift,” Akers said.
Upon arrival children are enrolled in school within seven days. Adults are employed at the end of the 90-day period. The 91st day expenses covered by Della Lamb may be close to $10,000 per month in total to cover expenses for the refugees they are resettling.
“Sometimes we have to continue to cover expenses for that fourth month on our own, but if we don’t the first three months are down the tubes,” Hyde said. “There’s not another resettlement agency in the country that provides all of the services that we do.”
For more on Della Lamb Community Services, go to www.dellalamb.org.