GARDEN CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - In his first whirlwind weeks in the United States, Wimber Htoo, 23, racked up a list of accomplishments. He learned to use the bus, applied for a social security card and obtained a state ID, all new experiences for Htoo, a member of the Karen minority who fled Myanmar as a teenager for a refugee camp in Thailand.
But the most daunting challenge facing Htoo as a resettled refugee in Garden City, Kansas still loomed: finding work.
Through all the confusing experiences since they arrived in February, Htoo, his wife Htoo Say and their 2-year-old child had been guided by a refugee center run by the non-profit International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of nine designated resettlement agencies in the country. Now, on an overcast March morning, staff members were eager to help him land a job quickly.
They were up against a deadline: in September the office will close, leaving Htoo and other recent refugees in the area without a key source of support as they start their new lives.
Across the United States this year, two dozen resettlement offices, which are partially funded by the federal government, will be shuttered. Dozens more are being downsized.
The closing of offices receiving fewer than 100 refugees per year, first reported by Reuters, were directed by the U.S. State Department in response to sharp cutbacks in the number of refugees accepted by the United States under President Donald Trump.
The closure of the offices will make it more difficult for recently arrived refugees to become productive members of their new communities, refugee advocates say. This runs counter to the Trump administration’s stated desire for refugees to assimilate quickly, both to promote national security and to hasten self-sufficiency.
Generally, refugees are eligible for at least a month of intense case management and about $1,000 in cash assistance from the government. After that, they can receive up to five more years of services at the centers, including help navigating immigration matters, healthcare, and school enrollment. Half-a-dozen Garden City refugees interviewed by Reuters said the assistance made their transitions far smoother.
Critics of the U.S. refugee program, including Trump, say government resources are better spent helping refugees abroad, nearer their original homes.
The closure of the center will remove support for more than 250 people the IRC has resettled in Garden City since opening in 2014, as well as for hundreds of refugees who initially landed in other states and moved to the region.
Amy Longa, the center’s director has been scrambling to quickly assist new refugees like Htoo and his family, organizing their important records in three-ring binders for them to keep when the center closes, helping them spend their cash assistance as quickly as possible so they don’t lose it and scrambling to make sure job placements are completed.
“I am trying to get the message across that we are not going to be here, so you better get your act together fast,” she said.
Trump campaigned on a promise to reduce the number of refugees, citing security risks. Soon after his inauguration in January 2017, he temporarily suspended refugee admissions.
The program was restarted in October with new guidelines and a sharply reduced cap of 45,000 refugees, the lowest level since 1980.
A State Department official said the agency said closing about 15 percent of the nation’s resettlement centers was appropriate given the lower number of refugees.
“We are really trying hard to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” the official said. “Our responsibility here is to continue to manage program that remains nationwide in scope even if that doesn’t necessarily mean in every state and every town.”
Between 2015 and 2017, the Garden City office resettled about 90 people per year. In the first months of the 2018 fiscal year, the number dwindled to 12.
In late March, just five weeks after Htoo’s arrival, Longa helped him fill out an application for work at the nearby Tyson (TSN.N) meatpacking plant, where many area refugees have found their first jobs.
When she asked about his work history, he shyly explained that his only experience was as a volunteer runner in his refugee camp, delivering messages and recruiting other volunteers.
Speaking through an interpreter, Longa was encouraging. She told him she, too, had been a refugee after fleeing Uganda and understood the work he described.
“Those skills are transferable,” she said. “You can put it down as your past work history.”
Employers, local businesses and government offices in the area say one reason the refugee program has worked in the town of 26,000 residents is that the center pitches in when problems arise.
When a Somali woman become inexplicably upset during a gynecological examination, her doctor called Longa, who learned from the woman that she was concerned about revealing she had undergone female genital mutilation in her home country.
Officials at the Department of Motor Vehicles have called Longa to confirm that identity documents refugees provide are valid. A local pastor said he called her for advice about comforting grieving refugees in his congregation. Teachers call for help communicating with refugee parents about their children.
“I don’t know what we are going to do without them here,” said Kayte Fulton, director of community health at St. Catherine Hospital, echoing concerns also voiced by the police chief and the superintendent of schools. “No one has the skill set that the IRC does.”
Even with the center in place, tensions over the refugee influx in the town have occasionally boiled over.
In 2016, the Justice Department uncovered a plot by an anti-Muslim militia group to blow up a Garden City apartment complex where many Somali refugees lived.
After news of the plot broke, Longa said she fielded calls from nearly a dozen anxious refugees, many of whom had fled their home countries because of violence directed at them. Longa participated with police and local leaders at a community forum for refugees and other town residents to calm tensions.
Janette Uwimana, 28, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo with her family when she was 14 and grew up in a camp in Uganda, has leaned heavily on the center.
Uwimana said she comes to the office at least four times a month, getting help with confusing forms or picking up donated clothing and furniture for her and her new baby.
“They have helped me with everything,” Uwimana said through an interpreter. “It’s like losing my own parents.”
Htoo, meanwhile, is pushing ahead, grateful for the help he has gotten from the center since his arrival. On April 20, he started a job butchering beef at the Tyson meatpacking plant where the starting salary is $16.30 per hour.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin