Iowa and Refugees

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 31, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests include Mak Suceska, bureau chief for the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, and Kerri True-Funk, director of the Des Moines field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). We discuss Afghanistan refugees coming to Iowa and how local organizations help them adjust, as well as Iowa's long history welcoming refugees.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, and Linh Ta, reporter for Axios Des Moines.


(music) Iowa has a long history of welcoming refugees into our cities, towns and communities. But what is the current status of efforts to place, house and welcome refugees from Afghanistan? We sit down with Iowa refugee policy experts on this edition of Iowa Press. (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at (music)                      For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, December 31st edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.  (music) Henderson: As the U.S. airlift accelerated this summer to get Afghan allies in that country out, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst said it was time for Iowa to step forward and welcome some of those refugees to resettle in Iowa. Governor Kim Reynolds joined that conversation and now we have a lot of different organizations and people on the ground in Iowa leading that effort. We have two of those folks joining us here today to talk about it. Mak Suceska is the Bureau Chief for the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services. It is part of the Iowa Department of Human Services. And Kerri True-Funk is Director of the Des Moines Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Thanks for joining us today. Suceska: Pleasure to be here. True-Funk: Thank you. Henderson: Also here at the Iowa Press table are Linh Ta of Axios Des Moines and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises newspapers in Iowa. But before we start delving into some of the issues, I want to help our viewers know what your organizations do. Kerri, can you tell us what the Des Moines Field Office for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants does? True-Funk: We are one of the refugee resettlement agencies here in Iowa. We are part of a national network through the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants helping welcome new refugees to the United States and get settled here in the state and move forward with their lives. Henderson: Mak, tell us about your organization and how you became associated with it. Suceska: Sure, more than happy to. Well, I came to this country as a refugee in 1993 so my initial association with the Bureau was when we were resettled here by the agency. The Bureau of Refugee Services has been around since 1975 helping refugees make Iowa their home. We support communities across the state, which will include Afghans, and many refugees to come in 2022. Henderson: Erin? Murphy: So, Mak, let's talk about that. When the dust is settled -- because this is still happening, still an ongoing process -- when the dust is all settled on this how many, do we have an idea, a ballpark number of how many refugees from Afghanistan will be settled in Iowa? Suceska: Sure, so for the state of Iowa this last week we kind of crunched some numbers and we're looking at just under 700 that we have had thus far, which includes Afghans and refugees that are coming down towards the traditional pipeline of refugee resettlement. As you said, when the dust settles we're looking probably anywhere north of 1,000 to the state, not just Polk County or the Des Moines area where USCRI is located. The situation is ever-changing and fluid and those numbers may fluctuate. We may see less or we may see more all dependent on how things go internationally and here domestically as processing takes place. So we as a network and as a state are anticipating, as mentioned, somewhere around 1,000 with that number potentially changing. Murphy: And Kerri, Mak mentioned it's not just here, you have some that have been resettled in the Des Moines area. Where else do they go? Is it throughout Iowa? True-Funk: We resettle here in Des Moines with our resettlement partners and there are also resettlement agencies in Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and in the Quad Cities area. Murphy: And so those communities largely? Or does say the Council Bluffs agency also find places throughout that western Iowa region? True-Funk: For the resettlement agencies we have a radius that we have to resettle inside. And so for us we are not supposed to resettle any farther than 100 miles from Des Moines. Murphy: And Mak, who makes that decision of where a family goes throughout the state? How does that process work? Suceska: That's kind of the million dollar question and a fair question because a lot of times people don't have a choice and those that do usually there is an established community already there before a family arrives. So we work very closely with our international NGO's, our federal partners as well as our local agencies here to look at what a capacity would be for a refugee family or a population to be resettled. Is there an existing population already that can help support those efforts? With those considerations, we then take a look at what the family is really looking at, where they want to resettle, if there are opportunities. So it's 50/50 depending on the welcoming and receiving community and the capacity of that community. Murphy: And that's interesting, so the family does have some say to whatever degree and interest they may have. I don't know how well they even know Iowa when they get here. But they do have some input in that process? Suceska: Well, a lot of people don't know about Iowa but Iowa has a great legacy of refugee resettlement so that is something to hang our hat on. If they are, like I mentioned, if families that are potentially scheduled to be coming to Iowa or have an opportunity to be resettled they're usually looking at if they have family already in the United States. This is called a U.S. tie. If there are sponsors that have stepped up potentially wanting to help support a family in collaboration with our local resettlement partners. We look at that. There are multitudes of facets that we look at. But sometimes it does come down to choice, but primarily if there is that capacity to welcome a family. Ta: Kerri, we have an affordable housing shortage right now in the state. What is it like actually trying to find homes for some of these refugees? True-Funk: Right now the arrivals that we received in the last two months are mostly staying in short-term housing. So we have a partnership with Extended Stay America and we are working with Airbnb to keep people housed while we're looking for apartments. A lot of times families are larger than what we see for our traditional American family and so finding apartments that will take families, six, seven, eight people can be complicated. We do have a network of landlords that are very much wanting to work with us and to work with refugees. And so sometimes when they have especially a larger unit come open they will pick up the phone and call the resettlement agencies and say, do you have a family for this unit? But right now it has been a little bit of a struggle. There has been a definite influx in arrivals. We've had more arrivals in the last three months than we did in the prior twelve months. And so it is a lot of work right now trying to match people with their homes. Ta: What are some of the challenges that come with having these families in this short-term housing? And why is it so important to find permanent homes? True-Funk: It's a barrier to being able to get the family self-sufficient. At the heart of refugee resettlement is the want to get families standing on their own two feet and participating in the community. And so when it comes to helping them learn their community, learn their bus routes, get their children registered for school, learn where the local doctor is, if they're not in the area that they're going to be living in long-term we have to do it twice. And families in short-term housing don't have that kind of stability, they know it's not their home, it is borrowed. And so that can add to the stresses that they face. On top of that, I can't imagine spending a couple of weeks in a hotel room with my own two children, let alone with six or eight kids. So that is kind of a cooped up feeling that a lot of families are not super comfortable with. Murphy: And Kerri, you touched on something that is a perfect segway because we wanted to ask you both about that next, kind of beyond even just housing, stepping back all the different ways that we try to get these families acclimated to life here, find a job, know where to go for groceries. So we'll ask you both this, but Mak we'll start with you. What kind of work does your agency do and what kind of resources are out there to help these families start to build a life from scratch essentially here in Iowa? Suceska: Yeah, that's a great question. Although we aren't in the business of refugee resettlement, we are part of the refugee resettlement network. So as a statewide agency we work very closely with our community partners, ethnic community-based organizations and resettlement agencies to help support that wraparound scope of services for that successful integration into one's new community. Some of the work that we really focus on is regarding around employment. We help people with long-term sustainable employment opportunities. We partner very closely with Iowa Workforce Development, our resettlement agencies, to really ensure that any hurdles that families may have towards that economic mobility and sustainability, they are alleviated through our wraparound services. We have case managers that are designated in working with these families, hand holding at the beginning at times when it's necessary, but mostly just being there as a support to help people stand on their two feet, as Kerri mentioned. And then with the multitude of services that are provided through our refugee network it really stems on what the family's needs are, what the agency can provide and then coming together to ensure that successful integration into their new home. Murphy: So, Kerri, same thing to you. And you're maybe a little more on the ground there as the local agency. How does your group work to make that acclimation possible? True-Funk: Refugee resettlement, the initial resettlement period is 90 days from arrival in the United States. And so once a family gets here in that first 90 days we help them do everything from get a Social Security number to get initial doctor's visits, get medical assistance and SNAP benefits until they are able to get working and find housing, register their kids for school. And we also have an initial employment program for people that don't have a lot of barriers to finding employment, so they are willing and able to work, no big medical issues. We can help them find jobs. And all of that, even with the employment program, takes place within the first eight months that they are here. So it is really time crunched, so it is a lot of services in a short period of time. And then we're able to give them some longer-term support through some of our additional programming. Henderson: As I understand it, these folks come in under what is called humanitarian parole and a clock starts and they have to apply for asylum to remain in the United States. Do you have attorneys lined up to help them with that process, Kerri? True-Funk: Currently most of the Afghan evacuees are under the humanitarian parole and that is a two-year entrance into the United States. At the end of the first year they are needing to apply for asylum. We have a very small immigration legal clinic inside of our office that is all free or low cost, and by very small I mean one attorney and one assistant. We are working with some of our community partners to try and figure out some additional resources. But free and low cost immigration services are very hard to come by. So right now we're working in organization together to try and meet the needs in Iowa. And there's efforts on the federal level to change how that status adjustment will work. Ta: Mak, what are you hearing from some of the experiences from the refugees who have recently come here? And what has the attitude been like as well from Iowans here at home? Suceska: I would say to your first point that refugees come with a great sense of loss. And so whatever opportunities they may have presented to them in a new home there is going to be gratitude without a doubt. And so a lot of the stories that we hear are paired with the challenges and hurdles families face but also the successes, being grateful to be out of a dire situation and into a new place where it is safe, where there are supports and resources. We met with some families last week that are just very grateful to have the opportunity to start their new lives. As far as what we have been hearing from Iowans, it was touched on a little bit at the beginning, there has been an outpouring of support from top down really across the state from our state leadership with Governor Reynolds' office to our Department of Human Services leadership as well as our community as a whole really wanting to support these vulnerable individuals. And I think for a lot of folks with that legacy that they are accustomed to from the '70s and '80s, many of those former faith-based organizations, volunteers and sponsors have stepped up once again to try to help support. Murphy: And what do you hear from the folks, do they find that they are well received here? Do they find welcoming communities when they come to Iowa? Suceska: I would say yes. I think Iowa overall with its legacy and the work that we have done has been a welcoming state for some time. It is very important to hear from our leadership that Iowa remains to be that way and we continue to build on that legacy to ensure that everyone coming to our state, specifically refugees, have a welcoming home. Henderson: So, once a refugee arrives, as I understand it, they are not required to stay in Des Moines or Sioux City or Council Bluffs or some of the communities that you mentioned. Where do you expect them to resettle once they resettle? True-Funk: A lot of the people that come to Iowa end up staying here because Iowa has a low cost of living and readily available jobs that pay a wage where they can make sure there is a roof over their family's heads. We will see with some of the Afghan arrivals some outmigration to areas closer to military bases and larger Afghan American communities. But those areas are so overwhelmed right now that pretty much everybody that we have resettled to Iowa is planning to stay here. We have resettled about 160 Afghans so far and only 3 have opted to leave. Henderson: As I understand it, many of the people who were flown out of Afghanistan came from its largest community, but many of them came from cities that were almost the same size as Des Moines. So what is their living experience going to be here in terms of religious observances, finding the kind of food that they are used to preparing? Kerri? True-Funk: There is a fairly good sized Muslim American community here and so there are places of worship across the Metro area. Additionally, there are halal stores in the larger metropolitan areas in Iowa. We do have quite a few folks that we have seen that are coming from a rural area so this might be the biggest place that they have ever lived. But for folks that are from Kabul, which is a city of over 4 million people, this is going to be a little bit of an adjustment for them. But I think they're looking forward to it. They are building their own community, making friends amongst their neighbors and ready to contribute to life as Iowans. Murphy: How about just within Iowa, and you mentioned some are coming from much smaller areas, do you find that they stay in Davenport or Des Moines or Sioux City? Or do they eventually move into a smaller rural area of Iowa? True-Funk: For previously resettled refugees they are staying where the jobs are. So they might move to a more rural area. Up around Storm Lake I've had employers reach out because they were looking for resources for formerly resettled refugees that have moved to the area for jobs. But a lot of people do stay around the metro areas. When folks come here they may or may not have ever driven before. So having access to a bus route can be super important. Having access to schools that have ESL classes for their children become super important. So a lot will stay where the community is. Murphy: Another barrier that folks coming here might face is a language barrier. I don't know if you have hard data on this, Mak, or even anecdotally. I'm just curious what percentage of refugees come here having at least some English speaking skills? How many do you need to have interpreters to help them along the way early on? What is the language barrier like for those folks? Suceska: So, the language barrier will always be a hurdle for any non-native English speaking individual coming to a situation where English is primarily spoken. And so what we have in place is a slew of interpreters and translation services, not only through the Bureau of Refugee Services as well as our resettlement partners and ethnic community-based organizations that help support that language barrier. If we don't have in-person interpretation we use our over-the-line, over the telephone line interpretation services through some partnerships that we have with Language Link with the state as well as Lutheran Services of Iowa through their language hotline. So language, although a foundational barrier I would say, it is one that is mitigated fairly well and the one that we have really been able to navigate as well as we can. Henderson: Kerri, how does that work in a school setting? True-Funk: With the schools in the Des Moines Metro area they have infrastructure in place for ESL classes. And then the Des Moines Public Schools in particular has a group of what they call bilingual family liaisons and those liaisons come from a variety of different backgrounds, speak the commonly spoken languages in the school district and they are able to liaise with the family members and help parents advocate on behalf of their students and learn the American school system. So the kids are getting the in-classroom supports that come from wraparound services through the ESL program and then the family as a whole is able to learn the American school system through those liaisons. Ta: Kerri, for some of these refugees they haven't known a country without war. What is it like to help them acclimate to Iowa? True-Funk: We really try to approach things through a client-centered trauma-informed framework understanding that people are coming from backgrounds where they have had to flee their homes, flee where their families have lived for a very long time and being sensitive to the fact that having lived through a war is very complicated and complex. So when we're helping them navigate Iowa and get adjusted, when we do our cultural orientation classes, we make sure that we talk about resources in the community, how they can connect with their ethnic or faith communities, how they can learn to navigate the health care and mental health system so that they are able to start to settle in and understand that not every bang is something that is scary and is going to potentially erupt into violence. Ta: And Mak, you talked a little bit about this before, but Iowa has had a long history of welcoming refugees, my parents included with that. What have we learned from those past experiences? And how does that help us now? Suceska: Well, I think what we have learned is the importance of community and how far that goes in helping support our most vulnerable Iowans with respect to refugees. There are many things that we have learned as far as what refugees also bring to our community and how they enrich and better support our communities from small businesses to entrepreneurship to just overall daily life. So it is very much so a bilateral partnership and I guess a relationship that we have, which is important to note that continues that legacy that started in the '70s and then going forward of course there will be challenges and hurdles that we face but it is always a learning process. And I think if there was anything we would take away it is just what everyone has benefited from, from a multicultural I guess environment and society. Ta: Especially as Iowa faces population loss, a workforce shortage, especially a decade from now do you see these Afghan refugees really helping boost the state and boost our economy and our communities here? Suceska: I think that goes without saying. I think that the data and stories anecdotally and hard data would suggest that. But it takes time. It's not an overnight phenomenon, I guess, it will take time for folks to integrate, to learn their new communities, languages, cultures, but eventually people will begin to gain that footing and start to contribute not only economically but socially, politically potentially. And so it's just, it's a good thing and I think we have a lot of potential moving forward. Murphy: In the time we have left here I want to back out and take a big picture look at this too. Advocate organizations say we're in a global refugee crisis right now. The number of refugees has doubled over the last ten years. Mak, let's start with you. How did we get here? Why had that happened? Why has that number increased so much over the last 10 years/ Suceska: Well, I think there have just been circumstances globally that have caused refugees to resettle or to leave their homes. Remember that refugees aren't refugees at the beginning, they are individual citizens, people just like you and I who happen to become refugees. So from war to climate change or other issues that may have affected people, that is where we have seen an increase in refugee resettlement and refugees as a whole. For Iowa and what that means for our country and even our state is that we will continue to help support to the best of our ability and as well as we can with our leadership that we have at the state level and locally. I think Iowa is poised well to answer that call. Murphy: And Kerri, speaking of Iowa, put some historical context on this if you can. Are we seeing more refugees in Iowa than ever before? Or what is the historical context here? True-Funk: Right now we're seeing an influx. But as compared to previous years not necessarily any larger than it was in the '90s and the early 2000s. The last four years under the prior federal administration, refugee arrivals had been decreased so significantly that a lot of refugee resettlement agencies nationwide had closed their doors. And so now we are seeing more offices open back up, especially with the Afghan parolees coming into the country for resettlement. And so I think our refugee resettlement program has a lot of promise to help get more people into the U.S., but we have mitigating factors like the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions that can slow that process down. Henderson: Kerri and Mak, we have about 90 seconds left. Kerri, I'll start with you. People watching this program they want to help. What is your best advice in how to do that? True-Funk: I would say reach out to your local refugee resettlement agency and see where they need assistance. For our office, we need volunteers, humans that are wanting to help and can do things like lift furniture and help set up apartments or help drive clients to appointments. Henderson: Mak, what is your best advice? Suceska: My best advice if you are looking to help is to look through a lens of humanity and if there are opportunities that arise where you feel compelled to help definitely reach out to one of our local agencies such as USCRI or any non-profit leading this work. Henderson: Real quickly, Mak, you have a personal story. What did you find most helpful as you were making the transition to becoming an Iowan? Suceska: Sure, that's a great question. I was very young. I arrived when I was five years old. And so what I remember was just the general overall welcoming atmosphere that we experienced as a family. As we say as Iowans, Iowa Nice, I think it goes a long way and there are many components to that. But I would say overall just that welcoming atmosphere and helping the fellow neighbor. Henderson: Well, thanks for being a neighbor to us here at the table today. Mak, Kerri, thank you. Linh and Erin, thank you. And thanks to you for watching this conversation. You can watch it anytime, all of the conversations we have on Iowa Press episodes, at Or you can join us over the air as we broadcast on Friday nights at 7:30 and at noon on Sunday. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, Happy New Year! (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at