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Aid system frustrates refugees

The crowd was angry inside the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago -- a stark contrast to the cheery African murals that have greeted one refugee community after another since the Uptown nonprofit organization formed 25 years ago.

The reason: more evidence that the federal system set up to welcome roughly 2,500 refugees to Illinois per year is nearly broken.

On the heels of two critical national studies highlighting worries over homelessness and other problems faced by Iraqi refugees, a new report released in Chicago shows the frustrations of Africans arriving from such war-torn areas as Burundi, Sudan and Somalia.

Among the findings is that the system created in 1980 no longer meets the needs of an increasingly diverse refugee population of former human trafficking victims, child soldiers and victims of torture.

"I arrived here full of hope to start a new life," fumed Idriss Shariff, a refugee from Darfur, Sudan, who said he nevertheless was frustrated about a lack of job training and decent housing.

White House officials have acknowledged the need to reform the system, which provides a one-time grant of $425 per adult refugee and leaves much of the burden for housing, job searches and other needs to overwhelmed local aid groups.

Roughly 4,800 African refugees have arrived in the Chicago area since 1999, most of them settling on the North Side as they contribute to African communities' rapid growth in the last decade to nearly 30,000 people.

The experience of African refugees underscores the need to acknowledge that today's asylum seekers speak several languages, and that some face lingering trauma that local aid workers aren't equipped to deal with, argued Alie Kabba, whose umbrella group, the United African Organization, conducted the report.

"We have many refugees that need ongoing counseling," he said during a news conference Thursday. But, with funding diminishing, "refugee providers are struggling to ev en keep their current staff on board."

Andres Ntakabasoba -- who fled Burundi in 1996 and arrived in Chicago two years ago -- is among thousands of Africans who have languished inside refugee camps for years.

Through a Swahili interpreter, Ntakabasoba said he was forced to leave his family in a refugee camp in Tanzania when he was admitted into the U.S. in 2007.

"They were saying, 'Don't worry, we'll bring your children in a few weeks,' " he said, near tears. "But still they don't bring them."

Ed Silverman, who has directed state refugee services since the late 1970s, said stability has become increasingly elusive for new refugees.

"We are facing the worst crisis in the refugee program that I have ever experienced," he told the crowd at the Ethiopian center.

Many clapped in agreement.

By Antonio Olivo ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ), Tribune reporter - October 31, 2009




Mission Statement

The mission of EHF is to empower the Ethiopian American community through education, advocacy, service and the development of community-based resources; to build a new social, economic and political community in North America; and to promote the culture and history of Ethiopia.

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