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In Louisville, Fewer Refugees Translates To Job Losses For Some

Abanur Saidi.
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
Abanur Saidi.

A flat screen TV anchored to a blue wall of Imanka Restaurant is broadcasting the words of the Koran.  The restaurant is inside the International Mall downtown—just off Broadway at 8th Street.  Also in the mall are a Somali grocery store and an African coffee shop.

And this is where 58-year old Abanur Saidi spends a lot of his time.

Until March of this year, Saidi worked as a Resettlement Manager at Catholic Charities Migration and Refugees Services. But one of the ripple effects of reducing numbers of refugees entering the country is job losses for the people providing refugee support services, and Saidi took early retirement.

“This was my first job in the United States and I worked there for about 20 years, eight months,” he said.

Saidi was part of the first group of approximately 50 Somali Banadir to come to Louisville in May 1996. The ethnic group with Arab ancestry can trace its roots to places including Turkey, India and Pakistan.

But refugees seeking to come to the United States now are in a very different climate. The White House announced only 45,000 refugees would be allowed into the country during fiscal year 2018-- the lowest ceiling of the number of refugees since the bipartisan U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.

Saidi and others sensed there would be staff changes after the election.

“I was uncertain of what’s going to happen with my job,” he said. Saidi said he started seeing positions being eliminated. He also sensed that if he kept his job, he would have to do the work of two or three positions to make up for the loss.

Fewer Refugees, Fewer Refugee Workers

For fiscal year 2017, which ended September 30, Kentucky expected to resettle 2,431 refugees. But as of the end of August, only 1,536 refugees were actually resettled here. That's 63 percent of the expected number.

The majority of refugees who came to Kentucky in the 2017 fiscal year resettled in Louisville - approximately 900 refugees.

Fewer refugees means fewer people are needed to help them adapt to life in America. It also means reduced funding, and resettlement organizations across the country have been laying off staff, reducing hours, or closing.

Saidi said he’s seen this before, during another time of heightened security measures.

“Remembering when September 11 happened we had to let some people go as well,” he said.  

These resettlement workers who lose their jobs are often refugees themselves. The U.S. refugee program places a high emphasis on self-sufficiency, and employing resettled refugees to help newcomers is a natural fit.

“We are a culture broker because you know these people and you know what they’ve been through,” Saidi said. “Their situation is not new to us. Maybe their faces are.”

Former refugees have multilingual and cultural skills that are needed for the jobs. Saidi speaks seven languages.  But when the number of admitted refugees entering the country drastically drops, these skilled workers are often the first ones to have reduced hours or lose their jobs, undercutting, for some, the self-sufficiency aspect of the program.

Saidi was lucky enough to have a Plan B:  he imports food from abroad from places such as Saudi Arabia, Italy, Bangladesh, Thailand, India and Pakistan and supplies the merchandise to ethnic shops here in Louisville.

And losing his job may have not been all that grim.

Saidi said he now has a lot more time to spend in the resettlement community. That includes being involved with youth programs and serving as a chairman of the Somali mosque in Louisville's Park Hill neighborhood. He said his family jokes that he's home less now than when he was employed at Catholic Charities of Louisville.

But Saidi said he can’t help it. When it comes to his community, “I have to be involved,” he said.  

Even though his official job of helping refugees getting settled into their new home has ended, his unofficial work in the refugee community continues.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.