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Refugees in Orange County struggle to make ends meet amid COVID-19 economic hardships

Refugee students gather at Jordan High School for World Relief’s annual Refugee & Immigrant Summer Enrichment (RISE) camp in the summer of 2019. Photo courtesy of Adam Clark.

Coronavirus has forced many families to alter their ways of life. Although COVID-19 has impacted almost every Orange County resident, a group that has been especially devastated is the local refugee community. 

Refugees can already be a vulnerable population without something like the coronavirus, said Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center, a volunteer-based organization that helps transition refugees in Orange County to their new lives.

“I know people who’ve been here less than three weeks, I can’t imagine what in the world for them it must be like," she said. "They’re totally uprooted, they’ve left situations that were full of violence and uncertainty, and then they come here and instead of being able to learn English and get all these services, suddenly they’re told to stay where they are and people will do the best they can remotely. It’s just very tough.”

Orange County has about 1,200 refugees, primarily from Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria. Bateman said a lot of refugees in the area have lost their jobs or seen reduced hours, especially those who work in restaurants or hotels, or in food service and housekeeping at UNC, where dorms have been closed and dining services have been severely reduced.

“They already are living right at the poverty line or below,” she said. “There’s no cushion to fall back on for them.”

Adam Clark, office director of World Relief Durham, a refugee resettlement agency based in Durham that serves refugees across the Triangle area, said programs that help refugees with employment have seen a spike in applications due to a greater amount of people needing sudden job assistance. 

He said they've seen about 20-30 unemployment applications among refugees just in the last week, and a long list of people are already waiting. 

“There are a lot of refugees worried about their rent, obviously the same things that are affecting everyone,” he said. “But I think it just affects them even more because of the sectors they work in.” 

Hannah Olmstead, a junior at UNC who is a part-time caseworker at World Relief Durham, said as local school districts transition to online instruction, many refugee parents don't have the English ability or understanding of American education to homeschool their children.

She said although she has been calling the families she works with several times a week to tutor them over the phone or help them with homework, she thinks it will be harder for students to catch up with their peers. Not only is it hard to go to school in English after they first arrive in the United States, but their parents often struggle as well with interpretation, she said.

"It's even more difficult when the kids are home, and you have very little access to the teacher," she said.

Internet access also plays a big role in remote education. Clark said World Relief Durham has identified a few families who have little or no access to the internet, so he said the organization is providing loaner laptops to families without technology to access the internet. 

“Normally that already isolates you in a very big way,” he said. “But right now, it can really be life or death for some families, it certainly can mean a lot about their food security and awareness of what options there are in the community that they can access.” 

On top of all this, language barriers and cultural differences make everyday struggles worse for refugees. Clark said some refugees have been left in the dark about support options due to these barriers. 

“Comms systems in general are usually in English, Spanish if they’re doing really well, but they certainly aren’t in, you know Kinyarwanda or Arabic or Burmese,” he said.

The Town of Chapel Hill is working to expand its emergency communication to other languages like Burmese and Mandarin through its Language Access Plan.

But one way refugee students can catch up in the education system is through summer camps that help target summer learning loss. 

Clark said World Relief Durham has organized one of these summer camps for refugees for the past few years. This year, they were planning to have 150 refugees from over 15 nations represented in Wake, Durham and Orange counties at the camp, but he said planning has been delayed, and it is up in the air whether they will be able to hold it or not.

There are several ways members of the local community can help. 

Bateman said the Refugee Support Center is asking for donations to help refugees by providing them resources such as grocery store gift cards, extra diapers or rent assistance.

Olmstead said donating money to World Relief Durham or a similar refugee resettlement agency can help as well. She also suggested donating to groups such as Mutual Aid Carrboro, an organization that is collecting money to create a fund to support workers facing serious disruption due to being kept at home without pay. 

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Bateman said although times are tough, she still has hope for the future. 

“You just have a seething situation of stress and anxiety for people,” she said. “But these communities pull together, they help each other. They’ve weathered worse things than this, they’ll pull through.” 


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