Interviews: In Search of a Durable Solution

Bob Montgomery, Int'l Rescue Committee

August 2004 | June 2007

POV: Describe the work the International Rescue Committee does.

Bob Montgomery Bob Montgomery: We work both abroad and domestically. Currently we're in 28 countries, assisting in refugee camp situations or situations where people have been displaced, helping to provide food, potable water, sanitation, all the needs of displaced people. Domestically, we have 19 offices assisting those refugees who've been approved for resettlement to rebuild their lives. We provide temporary financial assistance, orientation, medical screenings, and help with things like enrolling children in school. Half a dozen of the IRC offices resettled refugees as a part of the Lost Boys group, including about 100 in the San Diego area.

POV: How do you recruit Americans to help in resettlement? Who is involved-- religious groups, others?

Montgomery: First of all, we have a paid staff, many of whom are bilingual or bicultural. However, we do rely heavily on volunteers. We regularly speak to student groups and civic groups, like the Rotary Club, or groups of former Peace Corps workers. We also occasionally speak to churches. Often if there's an article in the paper, or in the media, it sparks interest and we get telephone calls [from people who want to help]. To be a volunteer or mentor we do have training. There are certain requirements, and most [volunteers] are very helpful in the process. We also use mentors, to match up individual American families with refugees.

POV: What choices do refugees have regarding their placements?

Madina Ali Yunye eating dinner with her American host family in MassachusettsMadina Ali Yunye eating dinner with her American host family in Massachusetts, from Rain in a Dry Land

Montgomery: It's a long, complicated, and boring process. The U.S. government decides who comes and who doesn't come. For those who do come, the government contracts with ten volunteer agencies, or resettlement agencies. Half of them are faith-based. There's a formula used among the ten national resettlement agencies to decide where refugees will be dispersed -- based on cultural capacities and language abilities in the different areas of the country. They also consider housing costs; a variety of factors are part of this formula. So when those approvals come to the U.S., all the agencies meet and divide the cases up.

Refugees don't usually have a big part in this process, because most of them have few connections in the United States. Somebody who has previously been in the United States -- say a student who has a connection to one part of the country, or someone with a particular job skill that is useful in a certain part of the country -- we would factor in those things. If there are existing communities within the United States, that's a factor. Back when we were assisting a lot of Vietnamese refugees, a lot of them had been to the United States before for military training, or had come here for education, so there were more connections than there were for the Lost Boys.

Reuben Koroma, a member of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, makes a cymbal in his refugee camp.Reuben Koroma, a member of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, makes a cymbal in his refugee camp, from Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

POV: Do refugees frequently return to their countries of origin? Do many prefer to remain in the United States? Is either of those a goal of the program?

Montgomery: Not a lot of refugees return to their home countries permanently. If conditions are right, they might make a visit to see family or friends. An exception was the case of Kosovar refugees in 1999. That was a short program. There were about 12,000 refugees, and about a third went back quickly after the war was over. The United States assisted people who wanted to go back. But people get caught up in their new lives in the United States. Our efforts are to work towards citizenship, to help refugees become productive members of communities. After people get their education, and get working, some may feel like they want to go back. But America has a way of co-opting people; and sometimes it's just not possible or practical for them to go back. Many of the Vietnamese refugees I mentioned regularly go back to Vietnam for short periods, but few of them return permanently.

POV: In the film, several of the Lost Boys are sending money back to their relatives or friends in the Kakuma camp. Is this common among refugees? Does the money play an important role in maintaining the camps?

Montgomery: We call those remittances. Most refugees do that. It's almost a cultural imperative. When you have somebody that's been left behind, the refugees want to do whatever they can to make things better for their relatives and friends. It's an issue we have to deal with here, helping them balance their financial responsibilities here with responsibilities for family or friends back in a refugee camp. But the financial responsibilities can be great for refugees who are trying to go to school, or having to buy cars. It can be a real challenge.

The camps are supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They bring great resources to it, but they're providing basic services -- food, water, and security -- so if families can send back a little more, it makes a big difference. The remittances don't support the actual infrastructure of the camps.

POV: How many refugees enter the United States each year? How is that decided?

Montgomery: The president, in consultation with the Congress, sets a ceiling every year for the number of refugees. It's currently around 70,000; but keep in mind that rarely do we bring in the number of refugees that we could. This year we'll probably bring in about 50,000. There are always numbers that go unused, opportunities that are lost. 9/11 obviously was a huge crossroads for refugee arrival. The year 2001 wasn't adversely affected, because the fiscal year was already over [when the attacks happened]. In that year we brought in about 68,000 refugees. The next year, we only brought in 27,000 refugees, although we could have brought in 70,000. The year after that we brought in 28,000. This year, things are starting to return to normal. After 9/11, they overhauled the whole security system overseas on how refugees are processed, and how assurances are made that refugee programs won't bring in terrorists or potential terrorists. We support efforts to ensure security, but we felt there was a little overkill. We're currently satisfied that there is a good system in place, and that we only admit those we want to come in. We didn't like the fact that there was a huge drop in arrivals, but in the end we're pleased that we have a system that has integrity.

POV: What are the special concerns in working with refugee children or orphans, like some of the Lost Boys?

Montgomery: Refugees who are under 18, including those without parents -- we call them unaccompanied minors -- go through specialized programs. Those are run by the Catholic Charities and the Lutheran World Relief services. Unaccompanied minors are placed into foster care situations, because they have to have parental care. The IRC is not involved in those situations. The majority of the Lost Boys were 18 or older; so even though they were single, they weren't unaccompanied minors. When you don't come with a family, you have to make a family, so we would group them together, in threes or fours in apartments. And the services were pretty standard. Some came with close friends or cousins or distant relatives.

POV: Some of the film's subjects express surprise at how difficult it is to succeed in the United States. How do their high expectations affect refugees like the Lost Boys?

Montgomery: The film really focuses on the difficulties of coming to this country. Especially for people who are leaving a horrible situation and struggling for years to come here, there's a feeling that they can come to the United States and all their prayers will be answered. But it's actually the beginning of a new process that's quite difficult.

POV: Do you keep track of the refugees who have been helped through your office in San Diego? What's happened to the Lost Boys you worked with?

Montgomery: About half of the refugees are involved in secondary education, and probably working at the same time. Almost all of them are working and doing well. The Lost Boys have been here three or four years now, and they're quite successful as a group, and also individually. Several of them have gone on to four-year institutions, or community colleges, some of them have won scholarships.

Our initial services are for a 90-day period, and we offer various kinds of assistance for as long as eight months. After a year refugees can become permanent residents, and we have programs to assist with legal services, and ultimately attaining citizenship. We see less and less of them as time goes by. We love them and want to see them, and we don't ever really close a case, but we're trying to make them independent, not dependent.

June 2007

POV: How has the situation changed for refugees coming to America since 2004, if at all? Are there any new factors or approaches to refugee resettlement that relate to refugees from Sudan, Sierra Leone and Somalia?

Bob Montgomery: In recent years the resettlement process has focused on the entire family and looks to provide programming for all members of the family, including children, women, teens and the elderly. In addition, financial literacy services have taken a more important role in resettlement programming. More emphasis is placed on providing refugees the financial tools to manage the money they earn through employment.

POV: What are some of the challenges involved in refugee resettlement in terms of managing refugee expectations of their lives in the U.S. -- and the hope that they will become self-sufficient in 8-12 months -- as compared with their experiences in the camps, where their every need is provided for? One article in the Indianapolis Star from 2005 pointed out this challenge with Somali Bantu refugees in Indiana. In it, Joyceann Overton, director of the Indianapolis Catholic Social Services refugee program, said "many Bantu coming to Indiana had the impression that they would be cared for in the U.S... With most of the Bantu families living in Indianapolis about a year, the assistance has stopped, but most still don't have jobs. Their unemployment rate is 75 percent to 80 percent."

Montgomery: It is true that the longer refugees languish unproductive in camps, the more obstacles they face to become economically self-sufficient in their new homeland. Expectations for all refugee groups need to be tempered, but for the most part, refugees are motivated to become productive again as quickly as possible. Thus the resettlement agencies have incorporated services to assist in removing any barriers to self-sufficiency like the financial literacy programming mentioned above. In San Diego the employment placement rate for the Bantu has been good. This was made possible by the holistic family approach mention above, which includes a mother-of-preschoolers program that assists refugee moms in learning English and preparing to contribute to the family's income. Also, providing programming for children, teens and seniors allows the wage earners to concentrate on earning a living for their families.

POV: In your experience with Somali Bantu refugees, what are the particular challenges that the Bantu population faced that were different from other Somali refugees? What should people know about this population that makes them unique in terms of their resettlement?

Montgomery: Although all refugees have similar challenges of language and transferable job skills, this was especially true for the Bantu. Only about five percent of Bantu refugees had any English ability, and many were preliterate in their own language. As agrarians, many Bantu did not possess readily transferable job skills. However, all the Bantu refugees were motivated to learn and to become productive. Having the proper programming in place helped facilitate their movement towards self-sufficiency in spite of the barriers they faced.

POV: What are the issues involved for the resettlement of adults and families that make their resettlement different from the younger Lost Boys? Do they face difficulties with language, work and cultural issues, that are different from tose of younger refugees, particularly in terms of culture and entering the work force?

Montgomery: The biggest contrast is the family size and age. Most of the Lost Boys were single and able to group together in their living situations, saving money and thus becoming self-sufficient more quickly. Furthermore, their age and the fact that they did not have as many family responsibilities in the U.S. allowed them to pursue advanced education and vocational training, which also facilitated their move toward durable self-sufficiency. The larger-family-size Bantu refugees had to address child-care needs, higher housing expenses and more difficulty in attending classes to improve their English and employability skills.

POV: What about the issues of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Several refugees in "Rain in a Dry Land" succumb to depression when they are relocated to the U.S. How do aid groups in the U.S. deal with the mental health of immigrants? Is this a common problem?

Montgomery: Long stays in refugee camps, the rigorous overseas processing and the oft-times daunting resettlement experience can cause some refugees to suffer emotionally. Organizations such as Survivors of Torture International (SOTI) along with other mainstream mental-health agencies offer services to assist refugees who manifest PTSD and/or who exhibit other emotional-health issues. More resources are needed in this area to ensure that refugees have the support they require to address the emotional challenges of resettlement.

POV: How can PBS viewers help African refugees or other refugees in their communities? Are there particular organizations that you would recommend people get involved with, either through volunteering or contributing funds in order to help refugees in the U.S.?

Montgomery: Globally, viewers can advocate that the U.S. accept more eligible refugees, thereby reducing protracted camp stays. Advocacy for additional resources overseas will help to ensure that those refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. will be healthy and will have the basic English and vocational skills to succeed in the U.S. Locally, viewers can donate their time to a resettlement agency as a volunteer or be a mentor to a newly arrived refugee family. They can also provide financial support to local organizations working with refugees so that these agencies have the necessary programs to assist refugees to move quickly into the mainstream and enjoy a successful resettlement experience.

Bob Montgomery is the regional resettlement director of the San Diego regional office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He is in his 30th year with IRC. He began in 1976 as a resettlement caseworker. Subsequently he was promoted to deputy director. In November 2000 Montgomery was promoted to resettlement director and in 2001 he was promoted again to his current position. Montgomery has a master's degree in social work (MSW) from Temple University in Philadelphia and is an accredited representative with the Bureau of Citizenship and Naturalization Services. Montgomery co-authored: "Avenues: A Caseworker's Guide to Immigration for Refugees and Asylees" and has been a presenter on resettlement and immigration issues at numerous conferences and workshops.