19 May 2020
The Amiri family arrived in the United States more than a month ago, but the children are still waiting for their first day at school. Their father, Mahmood, has not been able to find a job. He and his family moved to Utah about a week after states began ordering schools and businesses to close to try to stop the coronavirus from spreading.
The Amiris are refugees from Afghanistan. Because of concerns about the virus, they have yet to visit a local mosque to meet other Muslims.
Starting a new life in America is never easy for refugees. It is more difficult during a pandemic, especially after the government suspends the financial aid to help them resettle.
Coronavirus restrictions have affected refugee families in the same ways as anyone else. Take job losses and childcare issues, for example. But many refugees are facing language barriers and lack extended family or close friends in their new communities.
Mahmood Amiri, his wife and their four children arrived in Salt Lake City on March 24. They had waited three years for permission to go to the United States. When that permission came, they ignored warnings that moving overseas during the pandemic would be dangerous.
For them, it was worth the risk. Amiri feared the Taliban would target his family if its supporters learned that he worked for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
Aid groups have turned from training refugee families for work and school to showing them how to request aid for jobless workers or do schoolwork online. They are spending emergency money to pay for housing and food for families after losing federal financial support.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah leads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, known as LIRS. The non-profit service is among nine groups that work with the United Nations to help refugees resettle in the United States. LIRS has given emergency aid to more than 215 families facing job losses.
O'Mara Vignarajah says refugees, like the Amiris, who arrived over the past few months are in difficult situations. She said many do not have the work history required to qualify for unemployment and other kinds of assistance from the U.S. government.
Ana Lucia Ibarguen and her three children arrived in Claxton, Georgia, last July after fleeing violent crime in Colombia. She and her 20-year-old son began studying English and working at a center that provides clothing to the very needy. Then, the coronavirus appeared. The crisis left them without jobs or a school to study the language.
She and her son have requested unemployment assistance but have yet to receive any money. He got $1,200 from the federal program to help those affected by the pandemic. They used the money to pay for their housing in May. But they do not know how they will pay for anything in June if they cannot get work.
"It's very hard. Everything changed from one moment to the next," Ibarguen said in Spanish.
The COVID-19 crisis has not left all refugees without work. Some continue in jobs that put them at risk of infection, like driving taxis, restaurant service, and meat processing.
In Aurora, Colorado, P.J. Parmar sees many of those workers outside his office, where he wears head-to-toe protective cover. Parmar is a doctor who serves only refugees. He told The Associated Press that 45 percent of his patients have tested positive for the virus. One has died, and two others are very sick.
That high rate is understandable considering that refugees often live in crowded homes with other families, making social distancing impossible, Parmar said. They also share crowded vehicles over long distances to get to work.
Inside those vehicles, Parmar said, "when one coughs, they all cough."
The Amiris said Catholic Community Services of Utah is paying for their food and housing and that they feel safe. But that does not mean it has been easy to be trapped in their small two-bedroom home near Salt Lake City.
The Amiris do not have a television or car. The parents try to entertain their children — ages 15, 13, 6 and 3. But they are restless and want to explore their new city.
Utah's public schools were already closed when the family arrived. The children know little English and struggle without in-person help from teachers.
Amiri's cousin, who lives nearby, and Catholic Community Services are helping him look for a job.
Most refugees find work in three to six months, but the insecurity linked to the pandemic makes it harder, said Aden Batar of the Catholic aid group.
"The unknown, that's what we're worried about, not knowing how long this pandemic is going to go on."
I'm Caty Weaver.
The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
mosque -n. a building that is used for Muslim religious services
pandemic -n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world
qualify -v. to have the right to do, have, or be a part of something
positive -adj. the result from a test that shows that a particular germ, condition, or substance is present
cousin -n. a child of your uncle or aunt; also a person who is related to you but not in a close or direct way
cough -n. to force air through your throat with a short, loud noise often because you are sick
entertain -v. to amuse (someone)