Ever since the pandemic hit, I’ve been worried about the low-income families I coach and mentor at a municipal social services organization in Houston. For many years, I’ve helped them access educational resources, healthcare and jobs. Now, many have fallen deeper into hardship. Some have lost their jobs, but even more have had to risk their lives on the frontlines to continue putting food on the table.
I can empathize. I’m a single mom who worked full time through the pandemic, but I’m also an Iraqi refugee. I’m all too familiar with daily anxiety and fear, never knowing if the simple act of leaving the house will put you or your children in danger. That’s why I am so relieved to see the Biden administration finally keep its promise to raise the refugee cap to 62,500 this year from Trump’s historic low of just 15,000 people. Refugees like me are incredibly grateful for the safe haven America provided—it’s why I’ve chosen a career of community service. But we are also a significant percentage of front line and essential workers. America needs us too.
Nationwide, more than 346,000 refugees are considered essential workers. Fifteen percent of Houston’s refugee population work in healthcare, according to New American Economy. This industry faced severe shortages throughout the pandemic—a chasm that is expected to grow. By 2036, a quarter of our city’s new jobs will be healthcare related. Whether we have employees to fill them will mean the difference of $26 billion in gross domestic product. Beyond this, refugees are already helping our economy recover. They fill gaps in Houston’s manufacturing and general service sectors with retention rates up-to twice as high as other employees. They are also far more likely to start their own businesses than native-born Americans.
Even so, the Trump administration slashed refugee resettlement numbers by more than 80 percent, causing resettlement agencies to lay off workers and restrict services. I understand the Biden administration’s concern about rebuilding this infrastructure. But that must happen in tandem with new resettlements. After the president’s hedging earlier this month, 700 people who already had plane tickets were prevented from coming. That was in addition to the backlog of refugees who haven’t even started the years-long screening process. If America truly hopes to be a humanitarian leader, we cannot leave these people to languish.
I understand the plight of refugees all too well. In Iraq, my work with a U.S.-funded aid organization endangered my life. Every day, I traveled in secret to a secure compound. Eventually, I began receiving death threats. We applied for refugee status in 2008, but the vetting process took nearly five years. In 2013, we received a call and were given 10 days to pack up our life.
It wasn’t easy to be a single mom in a new country. I had to learn everything about the U.S. – medical care, child care, politics, housing. My children had to learn a new language and struggled in school. But we acclimated. My kids became fluent and made friends. I found work at my children’s day care and eventually became a case manager with the Refugee Services of Texas. Over that time, I witnessed incredible stories of refugee resilience and tenacity. With only a small amount of assistance after they first arrived, my clients went on to become doctors, engineers and teachers – all with a deep love for this country and a desire to give back.
Last spring, in the midst of the pandemic shut downs, I achieved a personal goal: I closed on my first house in America. It’s a four bedroom with a front and backyard in Richmond. With this security, my children are thriving. My son is an award-winning track and field athlete and my daughter is enrolled in her school’s gifted and talented program. It’s all a beautiful reminder of how far we’ve come and the investment we are making in this country every day.
In making good on his promise to raise the refugee cap, the president is acknowledging that 62,500 isn’t just a number. It’s thousands of human beings— families—like us. We’ve fled unimaginable hardship and will do everything we can to give back to our new home. Please Mr. Biden, no more future delays. We must get as many refugees as possible to their new home, so we can all move forward.
Zainab Ihsan is a refugee from Iraq and a Houston-based Career Coach.