International flags at Charlottesville's Buford Middle School

Just 15 days after arriving in Charlottesville as a refugee from Colombia, Aura Gaitan began work as a housekeeper at a local hotel.

She knew no English and was struggling to adapt to both the cold of January and the fast pace of American life. But to be a refugee in the United States, she and her family quickly learned, is to be pushed toward self-sufficiency at the earliest possible moment. 

In many European countries, asylum-seekers are given a one- or two-year window to acculturate while their cases are heard. As they wait for refugee status and the accompanying work permits, asylum seekers are given public assistance to sustain themselves and are often offered a crash course in the language.

“In the United States, all of the screening and verification happens before refugees even arrive,” said Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the Charlottesville branch of the International Rescue Committee. Having already been bestowed with refugee status, families are then expected to support themselves within six months.

“Are we actually helping people by pushing them into working a low-wage job?” Kuhr asked. “Some are asking, ‘If we let them study English for six months before looking for a job, would they be making more money three years down the line?’”

For Gaitan and her family accustomed to a middle-class life, the transition was especially harsh. She and her husband, Juan Carlos Uribe, had assumed that their son, who had already begun his first year of college studying architecture in Colombia, would continue his studies in the United States. Instead, he has had to pick up a job doing golf course maintenance.

“It’s as if to say, ‘You brought your children here to work and that’s it. You are here only to work,’” Gaitan said.

“Our youth are not less than the youth of the United States,” she added. “They also have dreams, they have ambition.”

While their daughter has successfully enrolled in Albemarle High School and is dedicated to her studies, Juan Carlos was not allowed to enroll because he is over 18. Faced with a system and language they do not know or understand, his parents are unsure of how to cobble together the funds necessary for him to take English classes and go to college.

“Life in the United States is not what I thought it would be,” Juan Carlos said. “I imagined myself studying.”

The Resettlement

Gaitan’s family was forced to flee Colombia after the guerilla group known as the FARC began targeting members of their family due to Uribe’s position with the Columbian military.

“We love Colombia,” Gaitan said. “It is our home, it is our world.”

But after seeking protection from their own government and receiving none, the family crossed the border into neighboring Ecuador and applied for refugee status.

“In Columbia, if they kill a family member, they will kill you,” Gaitan said.

The resettlement process in the United States runs as a well-oiled machine. After receiving word from the national IRC headquarters, the Charlottesville branch will begin preparation for new arrivals. In just a few weeks, and sometimes within just five days, the IRC will secure and furnish an apartment and schedule appointments with the health department and social services.

When the refugees arrive, the IRC staff picks them up at the airport and connects them to English classes and employment services. Volunteers showed the Uribes how to go grocery shopping, use the bus and access the bank.

The Charlottesville IRC resettles about 220 refugees into the community each year. The State Department provides a flat rate for each individual to cover their initial services.

“We have extremely detailed instructions from the State Department [on how to spend the money],” Kuhr said. “There has to be one chair per person in the apartment, this kind of bed, one knife, one fork per person.”

After the initial period of resettlement, the goal is clear: self-sufficiency.

“Six months is the absolute longest we have any kind of funding,” Kuhr said. “Everyone should be working by then. You need two people working full-time to pay for housing in Charlottesville.”

Beginning life in Charlottesville

The Uribes are enrolled in a program called a matching grant, which is considered a rapid employment program. Because Charlottesville has such a strong service industry, a large number of openings for refugees are in housekeeping or hospitality.

Uribe works as a custodian in a local school, a job which he is grateful to have obtained. Gaitan, who halted her work in the hotel due to physical ailments, works as a cleaner part time and is in search of something more stable.

For the many refugees who led lives as professionals in their home countries and are eager to transport their skills to the United States, the transition to a low-wage job can be difficult.

“Here, it is thought that we are capable of housekeeping, and nothing else,” Gaitan said

Given the amount of funding available, staff at the IRC says that the only option is for refugees to accept a transitional job and work their way up.

“Our program is to help refugees find a survival job,” said Courtney Cook, employment coordinator for the Uribes. “We tell our clients, your first job is not going to be your dream job or the one you are going to have five years later. This is a job for you to begin earning income as quickly as possible, and also to learn English.”

Even though the IRC provides an interpreter for every document written in English, during their first few months the Uribes signed a flurry of papers in a language they did not understand, struggled to get their medical affairs in order and are still trying to find a way to continue their son’s education.

“In Colombia, your child goes to university and then works,” said Gaitan. “Here, it seems to be the opposite.”

They are grateful, however, to have been placed in Charlottesville, a city they love due to the friendliness of its residents. They are continuing to work with Literacy Volunteers and IRC staff, all of whom the family say has welcomed them into the community.

Above all, after years of fear the family can finally feel safe.

Uribe said he heard that Charlottesville was named the happiest city in the United States.

Es la verdad!” He exclaimed with a smile. “It’s true.”