A Rule Changes, a County Stumbles and Refugees Suffer
San Diego County has been denying refugee families’ welfare
applications, leaving some of the county’s poorest and most
vulnerable without access to the cash aid to which they’re
Photo by Sam Hodgson
Amaal Al-Mifraji was denied welfare assistance because resettlement money she received from the federal government pushed her above the income limit. The county failed to refer her to a special welfare program designed for refugees.
When Amaal Al-Mifraji arrived in San Diego in February, the worst of her troubles appeared to be over. She and her two children, ages 17 and 20, settled into a small one-bedroom apartment in a sprawling complex in El Cajon, one among the thousands of refugee families that have arrived in San Diego County from Iraq in the eight years since the start of the war.
At last the 60-year-old mother, whose natural facial expression is one of constant concern, could try to put past her the trauma of the last eight years. She saw her sister murdered and her husband kidnapped by members of the Mahdi Army in 2006. He never resurfaced. She presumes him dead. But she couldn’t risk letting the threats against her son’s life materialize too, so she took her family and fled Baghdad for neighboring Syria. They lived there until this year, when they were admitted to the United States as refugees.
Like all refugees, she got a one-time payment from the U.S. State Department to help her family get settled. Many refugee families come with nothing. They flee violence in haste. As luck would have it, the federal government last year more than doubled the amount it gives newly arrived families, to $1,100 per person — money meant to help them find an apartment, furnish it and pay for other basic necessities. Al-Mifraji’s family of three got $3,300 — just enough to cover a deposit and first month’s rent on their $795 monthly apartment, buy a new couch, three beds and a coffee table. Aside from the used television that was a gift, they own little else.