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Gender and Social Inclusion

New York City: A Place of Freedom and Frustration for Resettled Youth

“Now I know who I am and what I can do for myself. I feel I can do great things for myself, my family, my country and for women!”

“I wouldn’t have become independent in traveling alone in years of living at home as a young woman. I have learned and grown in New York City.”

“I am now more confident and straightforward. I know more and can take care of myself.”

These reflections were shared by young women from Afghanistan, Burma and Bhutan who now live in New York City, where 450 refugees were resettled and an even greater number of people were granted asylum in 2010. Like these young women, many displaced youth and their families find new freedoms and opportunities in New York, but others have trouble making their way in the overwhelming city.

Refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the United States today are younger and come from more diverse backgrounds than in the past. More and more often, refugees’ low education levels and interruptions to their formal studies during displacement make it hard for them to successfully adjust to school, work and life in the U.S. However, these youth bring with them many unique strengths and have great potential to thrive and contribute to their new communities, with the right support.

To better understand the current situation for young displaced people in New York City and to see what steps can be taken to help them settle in their new home, the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Displaced Youth Initiative interviewed female and male refugees and asylees aged 14 to 29, from 11 countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Haiti. Our newly released report, Making Our Way: Resettled Refugee and Asylee Youth in New York City, shares what we learned and provides recommendations to help practitioners and policymakers prepare displaced youth to successfully complete their education and find safe, dignified livelihoods in New York and other U.S. cities.

Half of the young people we talked to during our research were still in high school, with most attending international high schools. Others who arrived in the country at age 19 or older had “aged out” of secondary school, had taken or were preparing to take the GED exam or had attended a transfer school for older, under-credited students.

As you might expect, the refugees and asylees who had best adjusted to life in New York arrived with higher levels of education and English language training, lived with one or more of their parents and attended high schools that have partnerships with refugee youth programs run by the International Rescue Committee and other groups. Those who struggled the most had not had the chance to continue their education after being displaced, were less proficient in English and had arrived without family or friends here, lacking social support. These youth need specific strategies—like peer mentoring, ESL classes and job skills training—to address the barriers they face.

Young women face even more obstacles than their male peers to completing their education and finding decent, living-wage work. They are less likely to have completed primary school before arriving in the United States and carry more household and caregiving duties for family members. They also face early pregnancy and marriage. However, the young refugee women we interviewed were also more likely to feel a new sense of freedom and empowerment in New York, as expressed in the quotes above. Feeling safer in New York City than where they were coming from opened up opportunities for greater exploration and helped to build their confidence, allowing them to challenge social norms that may have held them back in their home countries.

Resettled youth in New York and other U.S. cities—both female and male—will have a greater chance of succeeding if they are better prepared before they arrive. This means more resources should be devoted to secondary education, English language instruction and nonformal education in literacy, basic math and job readiness skills in refugee and internally displaced persons camps. In the United States, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement as well as local officials have a responsibility to support nonprofits and schools to ensure that refugees and asylees receive needed ongoing assistance once they are here. They should also ensure that young women receive needed services such as child care, so they are on a more even playing field with their male peers. But New York has no state-wide program to assist resettled refugees under the age of 18, who often face the greatest obstacles in continuing their education and securing employment. State officials have also cut funding for the Refugee School Impact Grant in New York City, which provided crucial support to refugee youth programs run by the IRC and other organizations.

Refugee and asylee youth come to New York City with courage, hope and resilience. Many are able to grow and thrive here, but not all. They need better, more relevant education and support both before and after they arrive to make the most of the strengths they bring with them and their newfound opportunities.

Gender and Social Inclusion