On a Lost Boy in Louisville

Daniel Solomon’s piece, A Lost Boy in Louisville: One Refugee’s Story, is an important read — both to begin to tease out the intersections of identity that individuals resettled exist in, but also to remember how much work still needs to happen after arrival. (also: kudos to Solomon for articulating things I saw working in Memphis that defied my vocabulary at the time.)

[Deng] Manyoun’s life in Louisville—and in Nashville before that—cannot alone be explained by the discrimination he confronted as a person of color. Rather, his story illustrates the ways in which local racial and social inequalities can exacerbate the already complex and often difficult process of refugee resettlement. In Manyoun’s case, his continuous encounters with adversity, his homelessness, his unemployment, and his alcoholism point to one of the shortcomings of refugee resettlement programs in the United States: the limited and short-term public support that these programs provide are inadequate for supporting refugees’ protracted transition from countries in conflict to the American cities in which they are resettled.

Resettlement programs claim to help refugees fulfill the most ambitious of American dreams: of “self-reliance and individual responsibility,” as the U.S. State Department has put it. With hard work and a bit of perseverance, the logic goes, a better life is possible for those fleeing some of the world’s gravest atrocities. But for too many, this rhetoric of self-reliance obscures the harsh consequences of limited public assistance and inadequate long-term social support offered by resettlement programs. They are simply not enough to achieve the self-sufficiency that resettlement programs advertize, nor, as in Manyoun’s case, even survive. In time, many tens of thousands of refugees who are resettled in the United States each year do “make it”: they become citizens, find gainful employment, and actively contribute to their local communities. We have much to learn from the stories of those who do not.

Manyoun’s move to the United States may have brought him sanctuary from a life of war and impoverishment in southern Sudan. But the scant and temporary measures on which he subsisted were not enough to help him survive. The consequences of poverty were further compounded by the racism that people of color regularly confront in Louisville. Refugees from Syria that the United States has pledged to admit in greater numbers will no doubt encounter similar racism and xenophobia unless we confront the stigma that currently colors debates about their resettlement.

There is much the U.S. government can do to assist refugees fleeing from the world’s worst violence—starting with admitting its fair share. Regardless of the quality of our resettlement programs, the expansion of refugee admissions is a matter of unequivocal moral obligation. But that same moral obligation also requires that we think seriously about what happens after resettlement. Sustainable and robust resettlement assistance is every bit as crucial to the fulfillment of our moral duty of offering a true sanctuary for those fleeing war. Without it, the refuge we offer is little more than an empty promise.