Seeing America through the eyes of refugees

One day in the year 2000, in the midst of the Second Congo War, Honoria* fled her home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and never returned. After 16 years in a refugee camp in Uganda, she relocated to Philadelphia, where she became one of the roughly 80,000 refugees who entered the U.S. that year. 

Honoria’s family was one of the dozens that Blair Sackett, a sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute, followed as they navigated life in the U.S. Sackett, whose work focuses on the experience of refugees in the U.S. and abroad, wanted to understand why some refugees thrived in the U.S. while others faltered. 

The result of Sackett’s research is a new book, co-authored with sociologist Annette  Lareau, called “We Thought It Would Be Heaven: Refugees in an Unequal America.” On this episode, Dan Richards talks with Sackett about the book, and about the under-explored factors that play a surprisingly large role in the wellbeing and success of refugees in the U.S. 

Learn more about and purchase “We Thought It Would be Heaven

Learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts

*All names of displaced persons in this episode, and in "We Thought It Would Be Heaven," are pseudonyms.


DANIEL RICHARDS: One day in the year Two Thousand, a woman who we'll call Honoria left her home and never returned.

BLAIR SACKETT: She was living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was at an early morning church service.

DANIEL RICHARDS: That's Blair Sackett, a post-doctoral fellow at the Watson Institute. As Honoria recounted the story to Blair, years later--

BLAIR SACKETT: As everybody was leaving the service, suddenly there was the sound of gunshots in the background.


DANIEL RICHARDS: At that time, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known also as the DRC, was in the midst of what's now called the Second Congo War. From about Nineteen Ninety-Eight to Two Thousand, over 5 million people died in the violence.

BLAIR SACKETT: She ran back to her house where her husband was with her child, but she didn't find them there. She tried to grab a few things before she fled, but the gunshots came closer and so she left empty handed. As she was fleeing, she passed by policemen, but they told her, keep running and don't look back.


Honoria's town was close to the border of Uganda. So she ran by foot from her town and fled across the border.

DANIEL RICHARDS: In that moment, Honoria became one of the millions of refugees that war created. Blair is a sociologist who focuses on the experiences of refugees. And she met Honoria in Philadelphia, where Honoria would ultimately resettle. But as Blair and her co-author Annette Lareau explain in their book, We Thought It Would Be Heaven, for Honoria and countless other refugees arriving in the US presents its own unfathomable challenges.

BLAIR SACKETT: When Honoria and her family were resettled, they thought they had won the lottery. But what they found was a very different reality.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And as Blair and Annette explain in their book, some of the most important resources refugees depend on are often missing from conversations about how to help this vulnerable population. On this episode, seeing America through the eyes of its refugees. And how America could better live up to its reputation as a land of opportunity for them.


Blair and Annette spoke with dozens of families who had fled conflict in the DRC and recently arrived in the United States. But before we get to what they uncovered about the refugee experience in America, it's worth keeping in mind everything it can take for refugees to even make it to the United States. So let's go back to Honoria's story for a minute.

BLAIR SACKETT: Once she reached Uganda, she was met by workers from the United Nations.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Honoria was taken to a refugee camp where she learned that her husband and child had been killed in the violence. Honoria began to build a new life in this camp in Uganda. She hoped it would be a short stop, on a journey to a more permanent home.

BLAIR SACKETT: She submitted her case through the United Nations to be considered for refugee resettlement. And then they waited.


DANIEL RICHARDS: Honoria remarried and had children.

BLAIR SACKETT: They didn't wait one year, they didn't wait two years.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Honoria and her growing family--

BLAIR SACKETT: They waited year after year after year.

DANIEL RICHARDS: One of Honoria's children was physically disabled, which gave her family priority in the resettlement process. But priority was a relative concept.

BLAIR SACKETT: And finally after 16 years, their case was chosen.


DANIEL RICHARDS: Despite spending over a decade in that refugee camp, Honoria considered herself and her family lucky. And in some ways, they were.

BLAIR SACKETT: Less than 1% of the world's refugees are resettled. So it's very few people who receive this migration opportunity.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Honoria's husband wasn't able to travel with the family, since he wasn't officially documented as her spouse. So Honoria and her five children went without him. And they would soon find that some parts of life in the United States would be much easier than in their previous home. Getting enough food to avoid hunger, for example. Other aspects of life would be more difficult and more complicated than they had ever been before.

So before we get into the details of Honoria's experience, let's look at some of the specific ways that refugees are supported when they arrive in the US. One of the first types of support a refugee will encounter upon arriving in the US--

BLAIR SACKETT: When they arrive at the airport, there's a caseworker who speaks their language or has a translator there who meets them.

DANIEL RICHARDS: A caseworker is assigned to each person or family through a resettlement agency, which are non-governmental organizations that contract with the United States to support refugees. And unless refugees have family and friends in the US, often, that caseworker will become their main point of contact in this new foreign country.

BLAIR SACKETT: Caseworkers help set up apartments, help gather donations to furnish the apartments, get spoons and plates and beds and sheets and winter coats, scheduling doctor's appointments and helping families make sure each child has the correct vaccination to attend school. Enrolling the children in school, showing parents where the school is.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Beyond access to a caseworker and other resources from the resettlement agency--

BLAIR SACKETT: Each family member is given a certain amount of funding. And this funding helps pay for the resettlement agency to run. But also helps pay for their rent.

DANIEL RICHARDS: The funding and the free caseworker, these things are temporary.

BLAIR SACKETT: Refugees receive 90 days of support guaranteed. After 90 days, some families are able to access longer term support, but there's no guarantee. And many are expected, after 90 days, to be self-sufficient. That means, both in terms of financially, paying for rent, supporting their family. But also in terms of navigating these different American systems.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So as soon as Honoria and her family land in the US, the clock is ticking. To get a job, to get your kids set up in school, and as though that pressure weren't enough--

BLAIR SACKETT: When she arrived, her and her family, like all resettled refugees, were in debt. The International Organization of Migration pays for the flights for refugees who are arriving to the United States. But those plane tickets are alone. And so refugee families are expected to pay those back over time.

DANIEL RICHARDS: With two young children, one of whom was physically disabled, Honoria knew she couldn't get a job that would keep her away from the house. So she and her kids lived off of government benefits, some of which expired after 90 days, some of which expired after 8 months, and some, like SNAP benefits, which would be available indefinitely.

They lived in poverty, which Blair said had become familiar to them. They'd learned how to live on little as refugees in Uganda. But what they weren't familiar with was how to navigate the many rules, regulations, and customs of the United States.


BLAIR SACKETT: So arriving in the United States, while Honoria had managed her family's finances carefully, scrimping and budgeting for food, for shoes, for basic necessities for her children, she found in the United States that financial management was completely different. She was used to a cash-based system. And in the United States, she was expected to open a bank account, to set a PIN number, and have a debit card.

And even more than that, to manage the government entitlements that she was receiving. Things like food stamps, her daughter's disability payments. And these entitlements have really complicated rules and requirements. And these rules and requirements can seem like small things, but these small things can become big things.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Blair and her co-author chart numerous ways in the book that individual financial logistical or bureaucratic issues can cause disproportionate damage to these families. One example.

BLAIR SACKETT: So Honoria, like all refugee families and Americans for that matter, had to pay utility bills in the United States. This might seem like not a big deal, right? You write a check, you mail it--

DANIEL RICHARDS: But for Honoria--

BLAIR SACKETT: --who didn't speak English and was not literate, she did not know how to read or write. Writing a check was actually a quite difficult transaction, right? You receive the bill in the mail, and it's hard to read it. It's not in your Native language, you're not familiar with reading bills. And now you have to write a check as well.

So Honoria often waited for her caseworker Wendy-- a Kenyan immigrant who was fluent in Swahili to come to her house and help her. But Wendy had a large case file herself. Her resettlement agency was under-resourced. And so she had trouble making it down to Honoria's house frequently. So Honoria waited until Wendy could come. But by the time Wendy came, the bill was late.

This happened not once but twice. And the utility company had a policy, if your payment is late so many times, you have to pay the bill in person. The office, of course, was across town, just her luck. So this brought new hurdles. Not just the hurdle of navigating the bill, paying with a check, navigating the mail, but now she had to get to the office in person.

And so this meant navigating Philadelphia's complicated public transportation system. Without reading skills, it was hard. She worried about finding the right stop, getting off in the right location. And beyond that, she had a rambunctious two-year-old son. So it also meant bringing him along and managing all of this across town. So just this one thing, paying a bill, could become a really big thing.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Another example. To receive many of her government benefits, Honoria's bank account could never be above $2,000.

BLAIR SACKETT: But in a rare confluence of events, the timing of Honoria's rent payment and the entitlement payment and her food stamps, all of these accounts hit her bank account at once. And so her balance looked to be over $2,000. So this immediately meant that her daughter's disability payment was shut off. This was a $650 monthly payment that the family really depended on to get by.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Luckily, Honoria's caseworker was able to help her resolve the problem quickly. But still, a $650 penalty for having a checking account over $2,000. These are the types of bewildering issues that face, not just refugee families, but all low-income newcomers to the United States, which brings us to a key point.

BLAIR SACKETT: When immigrants come to the United States, we often think about, what kinds of jobs they get. How do they navigate employment in the United States?

DANIEL RICHARDS: Getting a well-paying job is, of course, essential for most adults. But avoiding these types of bureaucratic knots and hurdles, as Blair and Annette called them in the book, avoiding these and the financial penalties they can cause can matter just as much to struggling families. Maybe sometimes, even more. As Blair and Annette found over the course of doing their fieldwork--

BLAIR SACKETT: Even the families that were doing well, that were sort of achieving markers of upward mobility-- buying a house, sending their children to college, these are things scholars agree on as signs of upward mobility. It was not because of the jobs they got. Across the board, all of the families landed in jobs that were low wage, that had limited opportunity for employment. And this was regardless of what kind of work they had done back in the Congo.

DANIEL RICHARDS: So how then to best help refugees avoid these hurdles and knots as Blair and her co-author described them in the book? They've identified two types of resources that seem to have an outsized impact on refugees' abilities to climb the economic ladder in the US. These two resources, they call cultural brokers and institutional insiders. Let's start with cultural brokers.

BLAIR SACKETT: So cultural brokers are outsiders who bridge families in the institutions they're navigating.

DANIEL RICHARDS: "Access to cultural brokers changed the lives of many families," Blair followed. One such family--

BLAIR SACKETT: In the book, we feature Joseph and Georgette and their five children.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Joseph and Georgette had escaped violence in their hometown in the DRC in Nineteen Ninety-Seven and fled to Tanzania where they lived in a refugee camp for 19 years. They had eight children in the camp, four of whom died. Their resettlement was a little different from Honoria's.

BLAIR SACKETT: This family was helped by a team of 40 American volunteers. So these volunteers, often themselves had professional backgrounds, some were retired teachers, real estate agents, financial advisors.

DANIEL RICHARDS: These volunteers were part of an affiliation of religious groups that had joined together to sponsor a refugee family through a resettlement agency.

BLAIR SACKETT: So resettlement agencies run programs where volunteers can create a group and solely sponsor or co-sponsor along with a resettlement agency recently arrived refugee families.

DANIEL RICHARDS: This arrangement is not uncommon.

BLAIR SACKETT: The US has a long history of faith-based efforts and organizing around refugee resettlement. Many of the resettlement agencies have a faith-based mission. And in addition, faith-based communities, churches, mosques, synagogues play a really large role as volunteers and mobilizing to help these newcomer families.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And even though these volunteers weren't professional caseworkers, they had a deep understanding and familiarity with how the United States works. That's what made them, according to Blair, cultural brokers and incredibly valuable to families. One such broker was a woman named Kathy who worked with Joseph and Georgette.

BLAIR SACKETT: So Kathy Wood often come to Joseph and Georgette's home, and they would show her a huge stackable their mail. She would flip through, sorting, this is an ad, this is an important piece of mail. And then every time the food stamp re-certification forms came, she would sit down with Joseph, and the two of them would work on it together. Through many recertification cycles, this went well.

DANIEL RICHARDS: These re-certification forms were long and complicated. And Kathy helped keep this process from becoming an issue for Joseph and Georgette. She also helped when it did become an issue, to keep it from becoming a bigger issue. As Blair explained.

BLAIR SACKETT: One time, they didn't receive the recertification files in the mail. So they never filled them out. And Kathy continued coming over, flipping through the mail. No recertification form. So then, because they were late, they received a notification that their benefits were going to be cut off. Kathy looked up online how to appeal a food stamps decision. And she helped Georgette prepare for a appeal process.

They went together to the office and made the case. Kathy explained what had happened, and the official granted them that their benefits could be reinstated.


BLAIR SACKETT: --an official at the food stamps office gave them incorrect information. He told Kathy that in filling out the form, some of the information would just populate itself when they receive the forms. Because they had received food stamps before, that information should be in the system. Right? And so when she got those reinstatement forms, she left off information like their birth dates and things that were supposed to have already been there, according to the official.

DANIEL RICHARDS: The official was mistaken.

BLAIR SACKETT: And so when the forms were received by the food stamps office, their appeal was rejected.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Kathy filled out the forms again. And finally, Joseph and Georgette were approved.

BLAIR SACKETT: The appeal process took over two months.

DANIEL RICHARDS: It wasn't just a time consuming headache. That was two months that the family did not have access to SNAP benefits.

BLAIR SACKETT: So the family really struggled, dipping into their credit card, and running up debt.


DANIEL RICHARDS: Thankfully, Kathy helped resolve the problem in a few months. But what if Kathy hadn't been available to go to the offices with Georgette? And even though she was able to go, she was still at the mercy of whatever the government officials told her. These cultural brokers, they're essential. But as Blair and Annette found in their research, they're not sufficient to support refugee families.

BLAIR SACKETT: Volunteers can do a lot to help. Volunteers were extremely skilled at helping children learn English, helping parents learn English and squeeze in classes between their work. They were great at taking children to doctors and figuring out what vaccinations were needed. They were great at helping navigate complicated banking transactions. These were all things that they had done for their own families. And they had intimate knowledge of how to do it. And their time and effort and money really went far for these families. But volunteers also can't do everything.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Well, and that brings us to another piece in the book. You and your co-author write how there's also this tremendous value in people who are just really good at doing their jobs. What you call institutional insiders. What are some examples of institutional insiders, and what do they do?

BLAIR SACKETT: Yeah. So we found really crucially that while refugees faced obstacles in receiving services and resources within the US, if they overcame these obstacles, they unlocked access to really important resources. So for Joseph and Georgette, this was food stamps. For some families, this was extra educational opportunities for their children.

But they just had to overcome these obstacles to get there. Insiders within institutions, we call them institutional insiders, could help unlock these benefits. They could help overcome obstacles. When things went wrong, when processes tangled into a knot, they could carefully untie these tangles.

DANIEL RICHARDS: The power of this type of resource is especially clear in the story of one other family that Blair followed. Alan and Vanna and their seven children.

BLAIR SACKETT: Vanna worked in meatpacking during the day shift and Alan worked in a bread factory at the slicing machine at night so that they could take turns taking care of their children.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Alan and Vanna had owned property in the DRC and been landlords. And owning a home in the US became, like it is for so many Americans, a life goal.

BLAIR SACKETT: They were determined to buy a house. But they also quickly found that hard work and savings wasn't enough.


They also had to figure out how to buy a house. How to buy property in the United States. How do you get pre-approved for a mortgage? How do you get a loan? How do you put an offer in?

DANIEL RICHARDS: Alan and Vanna learned about a first time homebuyer program from their former caseworker.

BLAIR SACKETT: This course taught them about the basics of buying a house, applying for a loan, how to get a credit score and work on your credit score so that you would be approved.

DANIEL RICHARDS: They saved up enough for a down payment.

BLAIR SACKETT: Nonetheless, when they first went to buy a house, their application was rejected. They hadn't been in the US long enough, they didn't have enough tax forms, there were too many rules and requirements, and they still hadn't quite gotten all of those down. They try again a year later.

DANIEL RICHARDS: And the next time they tried, they tapped into a valuable resource.

BLAIR SACKETT: The bank official, he went above and beyond. Before making a decision on the application, he went through page by page with Alan. He helped him fill out the different components, he helped them collect the documents, and the family was later approved. When they found out, they danced around their house, overjoyed. Finally, they felt like they belonged in the US, like they had made it.

What you see in that example is that it wasn't just about their hard work and saving, it was also about how to navigate these institutions. And people within them, like this bank official, can really play a large role in helping people meet the requirements and overcome those obstacles.


DANIEL RICHARDS: One final story about the things that can help refugees to thrive and also cause them to falter. So Alan and Vanna, like Joseph and Georgette, also benefited tremendously from the help of cultural brokers. They were involved in religious communities in the US, but some of their most important connections came through another type of American institution.


You see, two of Alan and Vanna's children--

BLAIR SACKETT: --were really good soccer players. So back in the refugee camp in Burundi, they played soccer with their friends. And when they came to the US, not long after they arrived, they were just out on a field kicking around a soccer ball. And a private cloud league team was practicing on the field. And one of the parents invited the brothers to be on the team.

DANIEL RICHARDS: The soccer team sort of opened up an entire world to the whole family.

BLAIR SACKETT: So in particular, Melissa-- one of the moms of another child on the team, an American from a professional background, she had expertise as a lawyer. Her husband owned a restaurant. They really became important figures for the brothers and for the family.

DANIEL RICHARDS: With the help of some great teachers and parents on this soccer team, one of their sons, David, applied for and got into a local college.

BLAIR SACKETT: Melissa, the mom from his soccer team, helped him navigate the decision making process but also helped him move to college. She took him to Target, and they bought everything you would need for a college dorm room. A mini fridge, gave him access to their Netflix account, got him a cell phone, and her and Vanna together took David to college. And it was a really heartfelt moment for both of these moms seeing him thrive.


DANIEL RICHARDS: But for too many Americans, especially lower income Americans and vulnerable populations like refugees, success is a fragile thing. For David--

BLAIR SACKETT: Within the year, despite David's hard work, thriving in his classes in high school, making it through the college application process, arriving at college, learning how to be a college student, how to study, how to go to office hours, and really hitting a stride. There were issues with his financial aid.

DANIEL RICHARDS: It was a bureaucratic knot, which threatened to stall his entire education.

BLAIR SACKETT: It came down to one signature from his parents on one form.

DANIEL RICHARDS: A financial aid officer at the school told Melissa exactly what was needed on these forms. Melissa then helped Alan and Vanna resubmit them. The financial aid officer, Melissa, Alan, and Vanna--

BLAIR SACKETT: --they worked together to untangle this knot that threatened his us college career and his later work prospects.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Blair and Annette's book underscores just how much refugees rely on these informal resources to thrive. But this isn't to say that we simply need more people in these particular roles in order to support refugees. As Blair puts it, we also need systemic change. Cultural brokers and institutional insiders, they did so much for the families Blair and Annette followed. But of course--

BLAIR SACKETT: --they were not able to change how much funding a school received, for instance, they could not change what jobs were available in a neighborhood, what kinds of jobs families could get. They could not change the amount that families received for food stamps.

DANIEL RICHARDS: Of course, more government funding for these services and support extending beyond just 90 days would be a tremendous help. But at the very least, our government should be working to make these services easier to navigate and less full of hurdles that constantly trip up the very people they're supposed to help.

BLAIR SACKETT: So one of our big recommendations for the US more broadly is to really streamline services. Something that can seem small like filling out a form for a summer school program can really be a big thing for newcomer families. So instead, for instance, auto enrolling kids in summer programs. And then letting parents opt out, if they don't want their child in it, right?

So assuming that access to a resource is the norm and then families can opt out. By streamlining services, by removing the paperwork, this really helps families access what they're supposed to be getting.

DANIEL RICHARDS: You've spent a lot of time with families in these situations. What do you feel like you've learned from these families? Obviously, you've learned a lot also about the systems in America that aren't working. Do you feel like you've learned things as well from these families and how they've navigated these issues?

BLAIR SACKETT: I think one thing that is just striking is how resilient the families are. These are families who faced extreme hardships and made it this far. They have fought hard for a better life. And even the obstacles they face in the United States, many of them took in stride, right? And referred back to the hardships they had faced. And they were hopeful for a better life for themselves but also for their children.

They saw their children in the promise of life in the US. The idea that their children would be American. Honoria, for instance, used to tease her youngest son Baraka, one day you'll speak English like an American with no accent. And indeed, when I visited the family almost seven years after they had arrived, Baraka was fluent in English with a perfect American accent.

So through the families, you see a lot of hope. They did, however, also shine a light on some things that were harder in the US. Joseph and Georgette laughed that, in some ways on occasion, they felt like they had been more free in the refugee camp. Here in the US, they were so tied down by schedules, by forms, by all of these many things to manage at once. And sometimes it felt like it was all coming down on you. So that was sort of a surprising side to see the US in. And to see it through their eyes.


DANIEL RICHARDS: Blair Sackett, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally and talking with us about this book and these families and what they can show us.



DANIEL RICHARDS: To this episode of Trending Globally was produced by me-- Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you liked the show, please subscribe to us wherever you listen to podcasts. And give us a rating and review. It really helps others to find us. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at trendingglobally@brown.edu. Again, that's all one word, trendingglobally@brown.edu. We'll be back in two weeks. Thanks so much for listening.


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