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Gender and Social Inclusion

Finding What Works: Learning from Refugee Youths’ Struggles

At first glance, Staten Island’s Park Hill Avenue seems like a typical New York City block with its six-story apartments towering on the horizon. Seemingly peaceful, the area is characterized as a low-income neighborhood, with all the attendant problems: crime, drugs, homelessness and people left isolated from political and social systems. To Staten Islanders, Park Hill is “Little Liberia,” and to the more than 6,000 Liberian immigrants and refugees who have been living here since the 1990s, Park Hill is home—a haven from the war-torn country they fled and used to call their own.

It is in Park Hill that I met Fatima*, a 26 year old Liberian refugee who first arrived in New York in 2009. Like many other refugees, Fatima’s journey to the United States was not an easy one. As the civil war intensified in Liberia in 1996, Fatima, then 12 years old, fled with her family to Ghana. They lived in a refugee camp outside of the capital, Accra, for 11 years. “It was difficult,” she recalls. But she managed to get by, finishing high school, working as a caretaker in the camp and later raising two kids on her own. Fatima’s life changed forever when she was told that her family was being resettled in the United States. She arrived in Minnesota in the fall of 2007, and she soon realized that she needed to get a job quickly. She received assistance from her resettlement agency and was referred to a job placement center. Jobs, however, were scarce and she struggled to make ends meet. Through the help of a friend, she eventually found a job in a factory, working long hours with minimum pay. When not working, Fatima went to school where she trained to be a Certified Nursing Assistant. These trainings are quick and usually guarantee immediate employment—Fatima received her certification in a few months and immediately started working full time.

In 2009, Fatima decided to join family members living in Staten Island. Now, she works in a nursing facility in Manhattan, and although employed, she still feels that she is not earning enough to meet her family’s needs. As a single mother raising two young children and supporting a teenage nephew, she relies on welfare to cover most of her rent, makes use of food stamps and utilizes as much as possible the city services offered to low-income families. Fatima admitted that she had unrealistic expectations about life in the United States and thought that “it would be so much easier here.”

Whether refugees remain displaced, return to their home countries or are resettled to another country like the United States, it is critical that they have the necessary skills to face the challenges ahead. Many young refugees come from camps where the quality of schooling is limited and there are few, if any, opportunities for employment and skills training, which are so necessary for their transition into life after displacement. For Fatima, that meant starting afresh in the United States, learning new skills to find work. In many ways, the years in the camp were lost years, as her education was insufficient and did not prepare her.

Through our Youth and Livelihoods Initiative here at the Women’s Refugee Commission, we have been meeting with young people like Fatima, as well as service providers, schools and employers in New York City to understand the best ways to help refugee youth transition out of displacement and to identify promising practices for programs that promote employability. By understanding what types of training help resettled youth obtain jobs, we can better advocate for more effective and appropriate education and job-training programs that will help displaced youth live safe, dignified and productive lives.

Gender and Social Inclusion