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The New Refugees

As the U.S. opens to Iraqis and Burmese, refugee ministries must adjust.

The stream of African refugees to the United States has slowed to a trickle, but the number of refugees from Iraq and Burma has recently exploded. For U.S. resettlement ministries, that change requires adapting to new crosscultural challenges.

Under strong domestic and international pressure, the U.S. accepted more than 12,000 Iraqi refugees between October 2007 and October 2008. The country let in only 1,608 the previous year, the Department of Homeland Security says. But unlike most refugees, Iraqis must at first adjust to a lower standard of living.

World Relief works with local churches to resettle refugees in 23 U.S. cities. The government gives it and like organizations $850 for each refugee. Half of that goes for case management, the other half for direct settlement aid. Since many Iraqi refugees are doctors, professors, and other educated professionals, the amount falls far short of expectations, said Barbara Cocchi, south regional director for World Relief's U.S. ministries arm.

"They expect new furniture, new clothes; they expect more than almost any other refugee group we've had," she said. "And because their culture is an in-your-face, demand culture, it doesn't always go over well here."

Burmese refugees have also been flooding the country after a change in government policy. A clause in the Patriot Act prohibited admitting refugees who had given "material support" to terrorists, even involuntarily or indirectly. The clause was defined so broadly, Cocchi said, it automatically excluded foreign nationals who most needed to claim refugee status.

In December, the Department of Homeland Security began approving exemptions from the clause so that those forced to aid certain groups could still claim refugee status. Ten ...

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