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An exclusive interview with Chris Coen, Friends of Refugees

Posted by Ann Corcoran on October 24, 2007

When questions were raised in Hagerstown, MD recently about how well refugees were being cared for by the church group that brought them,  we thought our situation was an anomaly, that is, until we heard about Christopher Coen and his work with Friends of Refugees.   It doesn’t matter what one’s position is on the number of refugees resettled and where they might come from, what we all agree on is that once here they must be taken care of in a humane way and that agencies, whether government or private, must fulfill their legal and moral responsiblity to care for them.

We are pleased now to publish this exclusive interview with a tireless advocate for the rights of resettled refugees.

Hi, Chris, thanks for taking time to tell us your story.

We’ve seen some of your detailed research on failures by some non-profit groups to adequately care for the refugees in their charge. How did you get started doing this work? And for how long have you been doing it?

I got started after I read some articles in 2001 about the ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan, refugees who were then arriving in the US. I was moved by the suffering they had endured as children and I decided to get involved in helping them. I gathered up some donations and drove to Fargo and to Sioux Falls, and later to Chicago and Michigan. I discovered that the refugees were being neglected. They would call their resettlement agency caseworkers for assistance and all they would get was voicemail. The caseworkers would not return their calls. I would contact the resettlement agencies myself, and I got the phone hung up in my ear. When I later went to Chicago I found an even more deplorable situation. After  numerous letters to the State Department and their subsequent visit to the Chicago resettlement agency that I found so many problems at, I realized that the government was helping to do a cover-up. I decided to dig further to see how widespread the problems were.

We’ve found that when anyone raises questions about refugee resettlement they are immediately labeled anti-refugee (or worse). Have you experienced that and if so, how do you counter it?

I have not been labeled anti-refugee, maybe because I help the refugees that I find being neglected. Resettlement agency workers though have regularly blamed me and the refugees for the reports I’ve put in to the government agencies. Numerous times I’ve been told that the refugees are liars (they can’t all be lying all the time). I’ve also had my statements questioned as if I was reporting misinformation when I was merely forwarding the refugees’ own complaints to the government agencies. If the refugees have some misunderstandings, whose responsibility is that?

How do you go about your research?

I put in FOIA’s (Freedom of Information Act requests) on a regular basis for the State Department’s refugee resettlement monitoring reports. I’ve found these to be full of extensive documentation of widespread mismanagement, malfeasance, and refugee neglect and abuse. In the past year or so there seems to have been an effort to conceal this information in the reports. I also researched the mainstream media’s infrequent investigation of refugee resettlement abuses. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution did a series of revealing articles several years ago. I’ve also gone and extensively monitored several resettlement agencies that refugees had reported to me as particularly bad. I’ve been doing a ‘case study’ of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (LSSND) since 2001. After seven years of my documenting LSSND failing to meet the minimum requirements of their contracts, the State Department visited Fargo and concluded that LSSND was doing fine. They were particularly impressed by their three-ring folders.

Have the government agencies been ready and willing to answer your FOIA requests?

They have, but after long delays. There have been additional problems. I have found missing pages and many redacted (blacked-out) sections of documents. When I wrote back to ask for the missing pages or the reasons for withholding some information, I have not received a response. How do we know the government is using legitimate reasons to withhold some information, e.g. if the information is personal info. on certain refugee individuals, if they won’t at least say what reasons they are using? I also noticed that the number of reports I get doesn’t match the number of agencies the State Department claims to monitor each year. Are documents being withheld or does the State Department just not monitor very many agencies each year? I don’t know because when I write to request that information I have received no response.

Tell us about a couple of the worst cases you’ve seen? 

At the World Relief affiliate north of Tampa, Florida in New Port Richey, refugees complained to me that World Relief had referred them to jobs in the next county over. The refugees had to ride bikes three hours each way to get to work. They had to leave before sunrise to get to work on time. The refugees also told me that World Relief had not given them any beds for months and that they had to sleep on the floor. They said that nobody at World relief would answer the phones, so they would ride their bikes to the office and knock on the door. Nobody would answer the door even though the refugees could hear people inside. The resettlement agency also used the refugees as free labor for World Relief and rented the refugees out as day labor to clean nursing homes, but then did not pay them.

In Chicago the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants affiliate is Heartland Alliance. There I found refugees in run-down, dilapidated and roach infested apartments. The Lost Boys were being regularly attacked on the streets, yet neither Heartland Alliance nor the State Department would do anything about it. I counted over twenty Lost Boys who were attacked – three were stabbed, one was brain damaged, and many had their teeth knocked out. I later found out that refugees had been complaining to the State Department about these Chicago neighborhoods for several years and the PRM dismissed it as “perceived safety” of the community.

Have you voiced your concerns to the contractors and grantors in the U.S. government?

Yes, to both. The resettlement agencies and Volags (voluntary agencies) dismiss every single complaint put forth by the refugees. They are highly defensive and after numerous hang-ups when I have called to calmly speak about the complaints with the resettlement agencies, I gave up and forward all complaints directly to the government oversight agencies now. I regularly write to the State Department and the Office of Refugee Resettlement in HHS, but they usually fail to respond in any way, or else they sent a short form letter that is non-responsive to the complaints set forth. A complaint I put to the Office of the Inspector General at the State Department was completely ignored. My certified letters were returned unclaimed.

Have you ever shared your concerns with Members of Congress? If so, who were they, and what sort of reception have you received?

Yes, they have also been unhelpful. They usually do not respond in any fashion to even the most well documented cases. In a few instances I have received a long run-around that ended going no where, e.g. Congressman Henry Waxman’s staff apparently was just mining us for information, and then did nothing to help reform the refugee program. In the end they said such things as the resettlement agencies can’t guarantee employment for the refugees. When I asked that there at least be some measure of effort by the resettlement agencies to help the refugees find jobs, e.g. at least three referrals to employers, I received a stony silence. Congress appears to be made up of people who don’t care about how our tax money is spent, or who act as the resettlement agencies’ apologists.

How about the so-called mainstream media — or any media — any reporters interested in investigating your cases?

No, none.

In any of the cases you’ve worked on, do you feel that you have made a difference in improving the lives of refugees involved?

In almost every case yes. The refugees greatly benefit from even a little bit of assistance , e.g. finding a job, or dealing with a hostile landlord, or simply finding clothes that the resettlement agencies are contracted to supply and often don’t.

How would you reform the federal Refugee Resettlement program? At what level is reform most needed — the UN, the State Department, or the refugee agencies?

We need the most basic level of reform first – start enforcing the very minimal ‘minimum requirements’ of the State Department’s contracts with the resettlement agencies. Make the inspections more regular instead of once every ten years or so, and stop making them pre-announced (we heard of one resettlement agency that spent six months practicing for their inspection). Reform is most needed at the resettlement agencies, but the State Department needs to start effective oversight or the agencies will never change. Currently there are almost no consequences to failure to provide required services and items. The State Department has created these problems by their failure to enforce the contracts and to effectively oversee the refugee program. The UN is also in need of reform but we are focused on the U.S. part of the problem. The Sudanese refugees all tell the same story of the Kenyans cheating them of food at the Kakuma refugee camp. The Kenyans fake all the UN inspections, and siphon off a huge amount of aid meant for the refugees.

You mentioned earlier that you work directly with refugees, do they give you their thoughts on how to reform the program?

Yes, I work directly with the refugees all the time and hear their stories. I forward their complaints to the government oversight agencies. The refugees just want basics – clothes, assistance finding jobs, help with dealing with hostile or neglectful landlords. They also ask for a few more minimum requirements from the resettlement agencies – phones, irons, umbrellas, curtains. We’ve written to the State Department suggesting these improvements and we have received no response.

Tell us about your group, Friends of Refugees?

It’s a small group of all volunteers. We directly help the refugees and spend the rest of the time trying to reform the mismanaged refugee program. After we registered our name with the state of Minnesota, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service lawyers came to Minnesota to file a U.S. patent on our name. They now use the name on the website to fundraise.

How can people reach you?

Thank you, Chris Coen.

3 Responses to “An exclusive interview with Chris Coen, Friends of Refugees”

  1. […] in Hagerstown, MD near where we live and it’s what Chris Coen of Friends of Refugees described to us too—non-profit groups funded by the federal government leaving refugees in a lurch.  […]


  2. […] by acorcoran on January 30, 2008 We have written before about the work of Chris Coen and his organization, Friends of Refugees.  He wrote to us recently […]


  3. boakai ngombu said

    it seems to me that EDUCATION for all volags, subcontractors (i.e. church groups), and Congress, is needed.

    for volags: there is need to understand the backgrounds of the refugees being resettled. how much time do they devote to learning that? how much time are they required to utilize informing their subcontractors of those backgrounds, as known?

    most folks in the world live in shacks they don’t own, use a common water spicket, rent use of a toilet. since refugees don’t own their shack in the country of origin, they have no idea about stateside rent agreements and/or property owner obligations. since volags have little alloted for each of their entire caseload, they’re not looking to relocate refugees in comfortable housing, only substandard, which is set for demolition once the “use” is finished. are they encouraged to have interest in educating the refugee about property maintainence? perhaps some protocols needs be established, laws made.

    are volags made aware of dependency issues with the UN incurred when the refugees were warehoused and how this impacts the expectancy and use of property by refugees? do volags inform subcontractors of their obligation to deal with the absentee landlords? do volags get at all involved with employer needs vs refugee needs, i.e. transport, etc. do volags provide legal assistance for refugees? do volags support the fact that not all societies prepare their people the same way to deal with time management, job expectations, urban living? do subcontractors have informed people on in their active assist groups?

    are subcontractors made aware of the living habits developed by people who have used only kerosene lanterns all their lives (when the kerosene was available)? … who have never known inhouse running water, who might know what a stool is for, but not a bathtub? … who’ve never had refigeration? … who’ve slept on the floor most of their life? are subcontrators mandatorily made aware of the time required to train people to live in this society, that, before their good intentions are tested? is there a requirement that the subcontrators accept no more people than they are able to assist? is there and umbrella set up within the communities for those who will not be directly assisted, who will be admitted in?

    are cronies, who own substandard properties in lessthandesireable urban settings,suitable for future development and gentrification projects, protected by their congressional representatives? do bureaucratic personnel have a vested interest in maintaining misery?

    and, since many immigrants are Muslim, are expectations expressed to Muslim dogooders as to their civil obligations, should they be introduced into Muslim enclaves, where slavery and servanthood was known in the past living experience of the refugees?

    crosscultural work ain’t as easy as making a brief, filing a complaint. the entire issues needs closer scrutiny.


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