It’s 9:30 in the morning. In this classroom in Buffalo, New York, that means it’s time for English. At the front of the room is a white board with today’s vocabulary lesson written in black marker.
“This one is a special one," the teacher says. "It’s about opposites. What are opposites?”
“Different," the students call out. They're bent over their desks, focused. But the fingers gripping pens so tightly belong to adults. These students are refugees from countries like Somalia, Sudan and Syria — the kind of immigrants President Trump has put sharp limits on. His recent executive order blocking immigrants from six countries has been stuck in court, but one key change did go through temporarily: the number of refugees allowed into the country was reduced to 50,000 — just half the limit set by former President Barack Obama last year.
Flights were cancelled and plans changed. One week later, a federal judge in Hawaii issued an injunction, blocking Trump's order until a final decision is reached. But as the decision winds its way through court, fewer refugees are entering the country.
"As a practical matter, we have seen numbers drop significantly," said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. Why? "That's a question for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State," she said.
The economic impact has already been huge. Nonprofits and charities that resettle refugees are often paid per refugee. So it’s not just refugees who are struggling; the programs that help them are too. And that means the job of helping them has become extra challenging.
"People are always stressed. I’m stressed," said Marlene Schillinger, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County New York, which hosts the classes.
The organization makes ends meet with grants and local fundraising, but most of its money comes from the federal government. It receives $900 per refugee to cover administrative costs for 90 days. The money has to keep the lights on as well as cover the salaries of staff who do everything from pick refugees up at the airport to teach them how to take a bus or to write a check. But fewer refugees coming in means less funding. So, while the staff here normally is focused on others, now Schillinger has to talk to them about their own worries.
“What we've tried to do is make the environment less stressful by saying, 'Look, we’re going to do everything we can to maintain this program. We’re going to do everything we can to maintain your livelihood,'” she said.
Some of the staff are former refugees themselves. For them, Trump’s executive order represents a double whammy.
"They have family that are still in their countries of origin," Schillinger said. "They don’t know if they’ll be able to get here or not. They don’t know if a bomb is going to be falling on their heads.”
Like one man, whose father was dying at home in Syria.
"Clearly this person was stressed, was upset, was in grief. He was mourning," Schillinger said. "He tried to get back to Syria, and honestly, we said, 'If you go, you may not come back. We understand what’s going on, but you might not come back to see the rest of your family.'"
The employee was given extra time off. More, Schillinger said, than is standard personnel practice.
The Department of State says the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. this year is back to 110,000. But Schillinger says once the pipeline shuts down, it's hard to get it running again. Flights need to be rebooked and paperwork revised. She says Jewish Family Service may not get more refugees in Buffalo until October or even next year. Many nonprofits that receive federal funding are struggling. During February and March, Church World Service, which has offices around the world, laid off almost half its staff, more than 400 workers. Now it has plans to rehire, but not that many.
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Nonprofits already work very lean, said Martina Fuchs, founder of Real Medicine Foundation, a global humanitarian aid and development organization that works with hundreds of thousands of refugees around the world. There's not a lot of fat to trim. They plan ahead, she notes, fundraising a year or more out. Typically her organization receives funding from multiple sources, including organizations it works with around the globe, high-net-worth individuals, foundations, trusts and the United Nations. But all the recent changes have created problems.
"The U.S. has always been a very strong partner in supporting refugees, in supporting aid around the world," Fuchs said. "And so this global network of support is interrupted."
Her organization had been working in Ethiopia to create for-profit medical treatments. But now she's been forced to suddenly ramp that up and race to look for alternatives. A group of professors at a university in Switzerland are trying to come up with a business plan to help raise funds for the foundation.
There's a misperception about what would happen if the flow of refugees into the country is limited, said Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of U. S. programs for the International Rescue Committee.
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