It could be that the weather has something to do with it, or that Houston has one of the lowest unemployment rates for a big city. Housing here is relatively cheaper than in other places, too, and while it’s not an easy place to get around, one can do it with a little perseverance, which these newcomers have in abundance.
But ultimately, the main reason Houston, and Texas, are the No. 1 destinations for refugees seeking haven in the United States could simply be that the word is getting around. Thanks to word of mouth, more and more of the world’s refugees lucky enough to qualify for resettlement in America are asking to come to Houston or Texas.
Last year, for the first time since at least 2000, more refugees – 5,623 of them, or 10 percent of the national total – were settled in Texas than in any other state, something, perhaps, to celebrate as this most-diverse of American cities this week marks World Refugee Day.
They come, literally, from virtually every corner of the globe, but the vast majority of refugees to the United States are now coming from Burma, Bhutan and Iraq – a demographic echoed by the people arriving in Houston.
Last year, a total of 56,419 refugees were settled in the United States, according to data released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In years past, the majority of those refugees were settled mostly in California, Florida and New York. But over the last 10 years, Texas – and Houston – have been steadily climbing in the rankings of the states and cities that received the most. And the economy has played a large role in that trend.
“The numbers are increasing in Texas primarily due to a relatively strong economy,” said Caitriona Lyons, coordinator of the state’s Refugee Resettlement Program.
Affordable housing, a deteriorating economic outlook in other parts of the country, and a robust, experienced network of service providers also has helped, Lyons said. But word of mouth and refugees doing their own online research from overseas also plays a factor.
A refugee is defined by the federal government as someone who is “unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Every year, the president, in consultation with numerous advisers, essentially decides how many refugees will be allowed into the country that year and from where they will come.
When the U.S. Refugee Act was passed in 1980 it stipulated that cash and other assistance to refugees coming to the U.S. be provided for up to 36 months from the date of their arrival. That is now down to 8 months, said Lyons.
Despite that, she said, the majority of refugees are able to become self-sufficient relatively quickly.
“Refugees are particularly resilient,” she said. “They are survivors. Very few rely on public assistance after a year. They’re also not very familiar with the concept of welfare.”
Some are scraping by
Jimmy Bizimana, a 30-year-old refugee from Burundi, arrived in Houston less than eight months ago with little more than the clothes on his back. Today, he has his own apartment and works two, $7.50-an-hour jobs as a dishwasher at Rice University and a Luby’s Cafeteria on the west side of town.
He was assisted in his first few months by YMCA International’s refugee assistance program, he said, which helped him get established. But more money would be nice now that he is nearing the 8-month assistance cut-off.
“It is not enough,” he said of his wages. “This month is the last month for me. Now I pay bills, I pay for the apartment. But I am going to try my best. I like Houston very much.”
Officially, World Refugee Day falls on June 20. In Houston, however, it will be formally observed on Saturday, June 16.