Post-Election Lowell

Aurora and I haven’t written here in a while, partly because we were engrossed in the election as much of the nation was. In fact, one of the last essays we added was a report about a Trump rally several months ago. Now that there’s time to reflect, I wanted to talk about Lowell, the election, and what’s next.

Photo of group at HypertextLast night, Aurora and I attended a LGBTQ+ Mixer at Hypertext Bookstore. The event was hosted by Lowell’s  LGBTQ+ Action Group and supported by Bishop’s Legacy Restaurant and Hypertext. That night, more than 45 people filled the bookstore and had coffee, talked about their feelings and reactions to the election, and their plans for the future. It was an electric vibe, filled with young people just out of (or still in) high school, a couple who just moved to Lowell, more than a few activists, and some familiar faces.

It was a bright spot in what for many has been an increasingly tense-feeling time. Last Monday, Attorney General Maury Healey’s office launched a hotline to report harassment and intimidation of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants. She reported an increase in reports of such incidents to her office since election day.

Some incidents have risen to prominence. Earlier this year, in May, two brothers beat a homeless man because he was Latino. More recently, three 15-year old girls allegedly punched and beat a woman on the Red Line for being an immigrant after mocking her accent. This issue doesn’t appear only in Boston. Just a few days ago, a Natick man reported receiving threatening letters filled with racial slurs. This would follow national trends: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Anti-Defamation League all reported a spike in reports of harassment and vandalism since the election.

There is a great debate that is being held in coffee shops, living rooms, and social media about how and if these incidents are related to the election. Many argue that anyone who voted for Donald Trump, because he used racially-charged and sexist language, are either bigots or, at best, bigot-enablers. Others argue that there are many reasons to have preferred Mr. Trump’s outsider status or policy positions over Secretary Clinton’s. Still others believe that both major-party candidates were not worth voting for, leading to a fairly high “other” vote. Some of those topics might be the subject of future posts. I imagine little of that matters for people who have overcome harassment, discrimination, or isolation, and worry that the heated rhetoric signals a trend toward a return to that abuse or an indication that it never was that far away.

Lowell’s Vote

What is clear is that Lowell—and especially greater Lowell—had a sizable number of people vote for both major-party candidates. According to the unofficial tally (which doesn’t count provisional ballots, overseas absentee, and some other exceptions), 36,641 people voted in the general election in Lowell out of about 85,000 old enough to vote. That’s about 43%, less than Massachusetts’ estimated 61% or the US’s 53%, but Lowell’s high proportion of noncitizens may account for some of that lower turnout.

Of those 36,641, 23,186 voted for Clinton and 10,495 voted for Trump, a 63%/29% split, with the remaining 8% for a third-party candidate, a write-in, or blank. This was very close to Massachusetts’ overall 61%/34% split.

votesinlowellNotably, more people in Lowell voted for Democrat Niki Tsongas (76%) in her race against Ann Wofford than for Democrat Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure what this means, other than that people weren’t voting straight-ticket and weren’t voting solely on policy. All the towns next to Lowell except for Chelmsford voted in favor of Mr. Trump, making the “Greater Lowell” breakdown about 51% Clinton, 41% Trump, and 8% other.

Organizing for Lowell

In this moment where it feels like political frictions are high, there are a number of groups organizing a number of events with an eye toward lending support to those who may be most vulnerable. This includes a peaceful Solidarity Rally against hate and discrimination 3:00 pm tomorrow at City Hall, which will include speakers from Lowell’s diverse population and a 4:30 pm workshop at Mill No. 5 to discuss what civic and political actions participants want to take together.

15107405_1277147152349666_735794546867948049_nOn Monday night at 5:30 pm at the Senior Center, CBA is hosting a “Community U-Nite”, a post-election gathering that will include food, conversation, and resources to make sure that everyone still knows they are welcome in Lowell’s community. Their goal is to highlight that although the nation—and Lowell—may be divided politically, Lowell is still one, inclusive community.

Later, in December, Pollard Memorial Library is hosting an “American Perspectives” non-partisan, civil and constructive community conversation on the 2016 Election. Local educators, community organizers, and citizens will discuss together how to reaffirm commonalities and move forward as one community of Americans.

Finally, many are wearing safety pins on their jackets or clothes. This started in the United Kingdom after the Brexit vote, when immigrants were increasing targets of hate crimes. The safety pin symbolized that immigrants were “safe” with the person wearing the pin, and that people wearing them will try to actively intervene when they see someone being harassed. It’s been adopted in the wake of the American election to symbolize safety for immigrants, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ, women, Muslims, and any other groups who are feeling threatened. Some critics of the pin call them a lazy crutch that gets in the way of real activism or believe they widen the gap between political parties. Supporters argue that they are a first step into activism by many who otherwise do not know how or are not as free to protest in other ways; a reminder like a string tied around a finger; and a constant signal that they’re willing to help. I’m not arguing one way or the other, but wanted to mention this symbol I’m seeing more and more around Lowell.

What’s Next?

The recent events have made Aurora and I want to turn back to Learning Lowell, to talk about the impacts we think different policies will have on the city, the arts and culture from all around the world that make Lowell unique and amazing, and the history that can teach us so much about the present day. As always, we want to know what you’re feeling either on Facebook or in the comments section here.


How Lowell Welcomes Refugees: The International Institute

This is the third in a series of posts about immigrants and refugees in Lowell. The first explored the economic impact of refugees, and the second was an interview with two Iraqi immigrants about their experiences and impressions of Lowell. We’ve learned that studies show that refugees are a long-term tax benefit for most communities, but they face special challenges when first arriving. For our third post, Aurora and I talked to Derek Mitchell at the International Institute of Lowell about their services and challenges. Although we know they help refugees, we think not many people actually know the broad range of ways they help—and why they’re always looking for volunteers!

Derek Mitchell

As we entered the International Institute of New England Lowell office,[1] Aurora and I marveled at the activity around every corner. This was a true mosaic of races, ages, backgrounds, and genders; a microcosm reflecting the brilliant diversity of Lowell. We were visiting the Institute to speak with Derek Mitchell, the site director for the International Institute of New England’s Lowell office. Readers may remember Derek Mitchell from his 2013 run for Lowell City Council, but he is busy every day coordinating IIL resettlement activities.

As we discussed in our first post, the United Nations Refugee Agency essentially defines refugees as those who have fled their country for fear of racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution, or for fear of war or violence. The UN counted 10.4 million of these registered refugees in camps, shelters, and urban areas, not including 4.8 million living in camps in the middle east or the about 28.8 million who have been displaced, but have not crossed an international border.

Of the 10.4 million registered refugees, only about 1% are resettled annually, 0.5% in the United States. The US Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees has cooperative agreements with organizations like the International Institute, providing funding for basic resettlement services. Although over 50% of the Institute’s operational budget comes from this contract, the ESL program, youth program, and other programs are reliant on private funding. This is by design: the federal government wants to locate refugees only in welcoming communities, and organizations like International Institute must create that community buy-in to raise private capital and in-kind donations, such as furniture from the Wish project.

Mr. Mitchell greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of the office. In each room, he introduced us to staff such as Yusuf, who was once a refugee himself. Everyone is working with clients or at computers, framed by large windows opening into views of downtown Lowell. In one room, preschoolers danced around a twirling, brightly-colored parachute. Another room had a bank of computers for volunteers. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was both comfortable and professional. As we walked, Mr. Mitchell spoke quickly, as if there was so much to say in so little time.

Challenges for Refugees

He explained that the International Institute primarily works with refugees in their first two to three months in the United States. Currently, most are coming from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan, after spending time in camps overseas. Those from Iraq or its nearby countries often carry special challenges: professional-level skills with no US credentials or certification. Finally, some clients are asylum-seekers: they have found their way to the United States and applied through the federal government for asylum. Some of these were victims of sex trade.

Jit Magar, left, fills out a citizenship application with help from volunteer Jaime Serrato at the International Institute in Lowell.

An International Institute of Lowell volunteer helps an immigrant with citizenship application. (Image: Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative)

The Institute is alerted to a new refugee sometimes only a week before they arrive, then they jump into action to arrange and set up permanent housing. They help with other necessities for the client, such as applying for a social security card, setting up school for children, and connecting with other services. Perhaps just as or more importantly, the Institute must acclimate the client to life in the United States. We discussed some of the challenges with the International Institute staff. Some clients haven’t used money in years because of life in camps, most do not speak English, most likely have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trauma they experienced in their former homes.

Volunteers: Two-Way, Reciprocal Benefits

We then met with Dahvy, IIL’s youth and volunteer coordinator. Dahvy also helped run the Southeast Asian Water Festival. As children sang “Eensy Weensy Spider” from another room, she explained that the Institute is constantly looking for volunteers that can be on-call to help prior to and during a family’s arrival. Volunteers not only help with setting up with an apartment, but also help clients understand the insider knowledge Lowellians take for granted: How to use crosswalks, how to get around on the bus, and where to access resources such as the library or City Hall. Even skilled refugees may need local knowledge. A trained engineer may have never written a check; a skilled doctor may not know how to address envelopes for the US Postal Service.

However, everyone stressed that it wasn’t just about teaching clients. It was about creating community. In the first weeks, clients can meet so many more people than just staff if they interact with volunteers. Volunteers often seek community themselves, and find it with IIL clients. In addition, Mr. Mitchell explained the importance of “cultural exchange:”

We recognize that the volunteer thing is not just a supplement to our service model, but it’s a wonderful relationship builder with our clients, and there’s more people out on the street that understand who our clients are, and can advocate for them, and raise awareness. -Derek Mitchell

The numbers reflect volunteers’ importance: there’s between two and three volunteers for every one staff member. Mr. Mitchell said that this “is great, but presents some real challenges as well.” Recognizing the importance of volunteers, the Institute has tried to create a volunteer program that isn’t “one size fits all.” This means there’s a great diversity of volunteers: for example, twenty-year olds who do many tasks, mid-career women who have only one free hour a week, and retired people with a lot of time but limits to what they can or want to do.

“We Want to do More”

The Institute’s ultimate goal is for clients to become self-sufficient. This is how the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees measures success. Mr. Mitchell believes that staying busy is the best way to process change and that if a client is unable to work, it gives him or her too much time to “think about things.”

However, the singular measure of “on or off benefits” as success makes him uncomfortable. He wishes the organization could be available for years after resettlement, as figuring out utility bills, insurance, and even building community are long-term tasks that are complex but vital for success. The clients agree, as Mr. Mitchell related:

We want to do more. We want to do a lot more, and I think our clients need more, and want us to do more. I think they get frustrated with us that we don’t do more…

In fact, one area where Mr. Mitchell especially wishes more could be done is in the area of mental health. He says that there are so many logistics and moving parts, it’s nearly impossible to get to “How are you feeling?” and “What do you need as a family to feel secure?” Mr. Mitchell recounted one story in which a client reported seeing someone two blocks from his house jumped and hearing gunshots. Even if the violence isn’t targeted at the clients—and it largely hasn’t been—it can be a trigger for PTSD or make a family feel unsafe.

These challenges are compounded by what Mr. Mitchell identified as a critical difference between refugees and immigrants: immigrants choose to be in the US. He spent some time in Central America, and he saw first-hand that those who left to find work in Honduras or America were entrepreneurial, risk-takers, and industrious. Those who stayed were older or had family commitments. However, refugees have no such self-selection and come with only “the clothes on their back.”

The Resilience Shows Through: Amazing Successes

Burmese children and adults playing tug-of-war

2012 Back to School party organized by Burmese SayDaNar Community Center. Image: Room 50, Jen Myers

Regardless, Mr. Mitchell has observed amazing success. Around 100 people have been successfully placed at Southwick in Haverhill, doing highly-skilled stitching for high-end clothing. The company has created job training programs for the refugees. Others are employed in medical technology or other high-skill fields. However, others opt for service jobs. An individual from Iraq took a job at Hoeffner’s because it was stable, despite being wildly overqualified. Many work at Lowe’s.

Mr. Mitchell explained that they endeavor to partner with a variety of employers, because it is difficult to predict what will be the right fit for a new refugee. They are always looking to expand their partnerships, as many employers do not understand that a new refugee has work certification and may even have specialized skills, but will not have references or a work history and may have language difficulties.

Mr. Mitchell credited the refugees for their own success, noting that whatever difficulties they face in the United States, it pales in comparison to the suffering they have fled:

Whether it kicks in at week six or month six, their resilience shows through. -Derek Mitchell

Their success has not stopped at employment. In only a few short years, many refugees have built community structures. For example, recently, a Bhutanese elder passed away. The entire community came together to cooperatively fund their funeral. However, not every community has come together as strongly, and this is where Mr. Mitchell sees opportunity: “These communities need conflict resolution, space to meet, leadership structure support, help each other. I’d love to do that work to support them create structure.” Currently, this is something the organization does informally.

Part of the need for community building—both within the refugee groups and between them—lies in another difference between immigrants and refugees. While immigrants often have friends or family in their new communities, refugees only rarely do. This is problematic, because social networks are a primary way people get jobs—most jobs are in fact never posted. This ties back into the importance of volunteers. Through them, newcomers meet a far greater circle of potential allies and get plugged into new social networks.

Lowell doesn’t have a monopoly on refugee resettlement. Although the refugee program remains a primarily humanitarian effort, there are economic benefits as well, and cities across the nation work to accept these newcomers. Mr. Mitchell explained why Lowell remains a resettlement community: for the same reason immigrants continue to come. Not only does the region continue to perform relatively well economically, but Lowell also has a history of accepting different cultures, and people “feel comfortable walking around seeing a level of diversity,” in Mr. Mitchell’s words. The International Institute tries to foster this:

We’re trying to play our part of building this ecosystem in hopes that other people will come back and say, “Yeah, we want to help out, we recognize the value of these individuals in our community and want to be involved in being a very positive resettlement.” Because those first couple months and those first couple years are pivotally important in setting somebody up on a track of success and integration vs. isolation and reliance and benefits and multigenerational poverty.

What’s Next: Raising Awareness, Building Partnerships

We asked if Lowell could improve, and Mr. Mitchell took a moment to think before responding. Social service providers always need more translators. If there’s only ten families speaking a certain language, a social service provider has a hard time justifying finding a translator for them. In addition, landlords could better understand the challenges refugees face: although they usually are stable tenants, they have no credit histories or current employment.

He also said the International Institute had only “scraped the surface” in terms of partnerships. They work closely with the school district and Lowell Community Health Center, and moved into the same building as Community Teamwork, Inc to more closely collaborate with them—although they are still working on an integrated handoff process. They also successfully partnered with the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative to assist refugees and others apply for citizenship—something Mr. Mitchell was excited to talk about.

Exhibit at Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit

A new exhibit at Lowell National Historical Park’s Mogan Cultural Center, features the previously untold stories of youth who came to Lowell as teenage refugees. Image: NPS

In addition, the International Institute is cooperating with Lowell National Historical Park. They’re updating the Tsongas Industrial History Center to include information about recent refugee and immigrant groups, and the Park is looking for ways to engage newcomers and to let them know they’re part of a tradition starting with the Irish and continuing today.

However, Mr. Mitchell is always conscious of messaging. For every citizen—whether it be in Lowell or elsewhere—that makes a connection between his or her heritage and the story of a newcomer, there may be another that doesn’t understand the value of newcomers. Mr. Mitchell was familiar with the story we summarized in our first post: one politician in Manchester used the resettlement agency there as a wedge issue, using immigration statistics to attack refugees. If refugees become a similar national wedge issue, the resettlement program may prove to be fragile. Despite its importance, its low profile earns it relatively few champions.

Regardless, challenges keep coming, keeping the Institute very busy. Just as the number of refugees from Burma and Bhutan decline as the camps are cleared, the International Institute is preparing for an influx of Congolese to be resettled in Lowell. This group will present different language, religion, food, and living arrangement needs. Mr. Mitchell also solemnly told us the group’s trauma will be “direct and severe” rather than indirect:

We’ve been told to expect that 100% of women/girls will have been raped or sexually mutilated. Not like, “A high percent.” Like, “Expect every single one of them.”

The International Institute is offering trainings to the schools, social service providers, and others on what to expect with this new population, explaining what trauma means and what it looks like. It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a terrible burden placed on the community, just that service providers need to be aware and alert. I personally believe each group has come with its own form of trauma, and each group has overcome that trauma to become a vibrant part of Lowell.

We discussed a number of other issues, notably the largest group of refugees in Lowell: Southeast Asians. However, those issues may be tackled in a future post. In addition, the International Institute accepts donations of money and goods. Mr. Mitchell said that pots and pans are especially hard to come by.

For more information, visit


[1] This interview took place before the International Institute moved to its new location on Warren Street.

What’s It Like to be a Refugee in Lowell?

This is the second in a series of posts exploring immigrants and refugees in Lowell.

As Chris and I have been exploring, Lowell’s decision to be open to refugee resettlement raises tough questions. Do the financial benefits outweigh the costs of social services? Does it benefit or stress Lowell to have these waves of new folks with different cultural backgrounds and heavy emotional baggage join our communities? Chris did an amazing post analyzing the research that’s been done on these tough questions. But let’s look at maybe the most important perspective of all: what is it like to come to Lowell as a refugee, and how might they answer the questions some raise?

We spoke with Farouk Ali and his daughter Rafal, who came to Lowell in 2010 from Iraq. Farouk and Rafal are warm, joyful people, and we felt fortunate to be able to speak with them and learn their story. They, along with the rest of their nuclear family, fled Iraq for Syria after getting death threats and losing family members in the war. How many family members? 23. That is not a typo. Twenty-three. They were in Syria for four years applying for refugee status and waiting to hear what country might accept them.

The family originally hoped that they would be able to relocate to Lichtenstein, where Farouk could use his fluent German. But after more than a year of waiting, they decided to consider another option: Lowell. This part of their story makes me angry on their behalf. Image being fluent in German, and the frustration of learning that no German-speaking country was open to you. That instead of even that small head start on a new life, you’d have to learn another language.

We asked Farouk and Rafal what they knew about Lowell before coming here. “When they proposed Lowell, Massachusetts, we checked on the Wikipedia.” They saw that Massachusetts was a prosperous state, and they hoped that meant it might be easy to find a job. The reality wasn’t so simple, of course. Adjustment was a process, and arriving in 2010, in the midst of that economic downturn, was a stroke of bad luck. In Iraq, Farouk had college level degrees in Mathematics and German, and worked building databases in the Ministry of Oil. Here, it took time to find something that was a good fit, but he now works helping several nonprofit organizations to do outreach and translation for Iraqi families.

The family had to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new life. We asked them what helped them get adjusted. Farouk had a quick response: “The main help was the International Institute of Lowell. Without them, it would have been very difficult or impossible to adapt to our new surroundings. They provide us with a house, furniture, other necessary items, for free.”

The International Institute helped in other ways too: there’s a lot of paperwork new arrivals have to do, and you can imagine how difficult that might be with a language and cultural learning curve. Slowly, they got adjusted to their new lives. Rafal started school at Lowell High. Farouk remembered, “When everything was finished, and I said, ‘Okay I am going, to leave,’ she cried. She said ‘How can I communicate with the other students?'”

Rafal continued the story, “I was crying, I was like, ‘Just let me stay home, I will cook for you, I will clean the house!’ I just wanted for him to let me stay home because it was like a difficult feeling, you know? You don’t know the school, you don’t know the people. They just put you in the school, and then here you go! That’s your school, and then you have to learn and all that, and it was kind of difficult for me. Especially like the first few months.”

Farouk: “I said, ‘Are you speaking in English with them?’ And she said just one word, ‘Hi.’ ‘Hi! Hi! Hi!'”

Rafal: “Yeah, like I didn’t have friends, I was just like, ‘Hi!’ and then they’d ‘hi’ back. That’s all!”

It’s hard to imagine being a young teenager and having to deal with so many things at once, but Rafal must have found a way, because the young woman we met was confident and seemed ready to take on the world. She just graduated from Lowell High, and now she’s on to college, first to Middlesex and then transferring onward. She’s considering double majoring in Dental Hygiene and Business Administration. She won a statewide competition for high schoolers presenting business plans, and October, she went on to nationals in California. She even works at that most Massachusetts of institutions, Dunkin’ Donuts.

I asked if Lowell felt like home, if they thought they would continue to live here. Rafal thinks she will stay in Lowell. Farouk agrees: “For me, it’s a perfect place to live. A fantastic place. ”

Chris and I wondered what they expected when they came to America, and whether they found Americans friendly and welcoming.

Farouk: “We had the wrong image about American society. We were thinking that Americans are chain-smokers, reckless drivers, violent. But we found, no. The American people are quite lovely and helpful, and they provide us with whatever we needed, actually. A peaceful people as well…

“We find that American Society people are more aggressive to get in touch with you. Our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and so on. So they try to approach us, to make friends with us, and so on. So we didn’t find any problem. We use the bus, I found that Americans are all talking without knowing another one.”

I was really happy to hear that they had found Lowell to be a welcoming place. I wondered how they would respond to the question at the heart of this series of posts Chris and I are doing: Why should Lowell take in refugees?

Farouk responded, “…I feel like all the Americans society are immigrants. It’s something different from Iraq. We have a civilization or history that goes back to 7,000, 9,000 years, but the history here in America is not more than 300. So I consider that all the society is from immigrants, but the difference is that you came 10 or 20 years before me. All of us are immigrants, so we don’t feel like we are strangers here… There is admirable harmony in dealing between society, between the immigrants. No conflict whatsoever, which is good.”

What a lovely vision of Lowell, and of America. I felt energized just speaking with them about their story. To me, abstract questions about the economics of immigrants and refugees disappear in an instant when you hear a story like theirs.

Does Lowell have a moral obligation to take in refugees? I would say not only does it have the obligation, it has the privilege. Refugees may require extra help as they start over, but they have so much to offer our community. Besides, becoming a home for new Americans is one of Lowell’s defining characteristics and most important traditions. What would Lowell be without the generations of immigrants and refugees that literally built the city and dug the canals? East Chelmsford. And pretty boring, I would imagine. No offense, Chelmsford!

In the next post in our series on refugees in the community, we visit the International Institute, and learn more about how they help welcome new Lowellians like Farouk and Rafal.

Immigrants in Lowell: Responsibility, Cost, or Something More?

As the stories in the rediscovered International Institute archives highlight, immigration and refugees have been an integral part of the Lowell story since its founding. People from other countries built Lowell, labored in its factories, and created the diverse institutions we enjoy today. Nevertheless, the question of costs of providing services is valid. This is the first in a series of posts exploring immigrants and refugees in Lowell.

The issue of refugees in Lowell was elevated last July when Mayor Rodney Eliot made a motion requesting a report regarding the costs of newcomer students to Lowell’s school system. Councilor Belanger also spoke, expressing concern of the cost of immigrants:

…we got a problem that’s serious and it’s going to get far worse, of refugees, undocumented or illegal aliens, which ever term you choose to use, are pegged for Lowell.  We are on that list.  Many of which are unskilled and uneducated.  And they’re on their way. -Corey Belanger transcribed his complete remarks here.

The concern grew out of Governor Deval Patrick’s offer to shelter unaccompanied minors who crossed the US-Mexico border, but Councilor Belanger mentioned resettled refugee families from the Congo in the same breath.  The off-the-cuff remarks may be a symptom of a genuine confusion about the differences between immigrants, refugees, and other populations.

Although there ultimately was no need to shelter children due to falling numbers and increased immigration processing capacity, immigration and refugees remain a central issue in Lowell. Councilor Belanger and Mayor Elliot aren’t alone in worry about the cost of providing education and social services to newcomers.

However, is their fear justified? Moreover, are immigrants simply a burden the state places on Lowell, a genuine humanitarian effort the good citizens of Lowell provide, or an investment that pays dividends? We couldn’t let discussion of the costs rest without exploring all sides of the issue, because from my perspective, Lowell’s story is all about generation after generation of newcomers.

Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Immigrants

About 30,000 foreign-born people a year are granted legal permanent residence in Massachusetts, most of who follow one of three paths: Refugees, Asylees, and (for lack of a better term) Economic/Familial Immigrants. Last year, an estimated 415[1] of these moved to Lowell. Each has a different legal status than one another and the unknown number who have immigrated to the US illegally. Before talking about foreign-born citizens in our community, I wanted to make sure I have my terminology correct!

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) uses a 1951 Geneva Convention definition of refugees: those who have fled their country for fear of racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution. In some cases, agencies and nations expand the definition to include those fleeing violence or war. The UNHCR grants refugee status to people across the world, but this status does not entitle people to many services beyond access to a refugee camp. Although counted as refugees by UNHCR, they may lack any official status in any specific countries.

Before people are officially registered as refugees, they may be more accurately called “asylum seekers.” Each country, including the US, has procedures for determining whether an asylum seeker can be registered as a refugee or granted asylum under their own law. For this reason, I believe it may be more correct to call people fleeing from violence in Central America “asylum seekers” rather than refugees or immigrants. However, the United States uses the 1951 definition and only registers those fleeing persecution or human trafficking as refugees, not those fleeing violence or war.[2] An average of 26,000 people annually crossed the United States border and were granted asylum since 1995, most of whom were from China.[3]

Approximate refugees per 10000: 2.0 US average, 3.7 Massachusetts. 2002-2012 average annual refugee count from 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, population count from 2010 decennial census.However, a larger number of refugees are granted that status in other nations (such as Kenya or Jordan) live there temporarily in an urban area or camp run by an agency such as the UN or Red Cross, then are referred by their host[4] to the United States. The US reviews those referrals, and accepts about 60,000 refugees a year (recently often reaching the limit of 70,000); about 2,400 annually settle in Massachusetts. This is the typical story of the Congolese families Councilor Belanger mentioned, along with many of Lowell’s Cambodians, Burmese, Bhutanese, Iraqis, and many other groups.

The UN estimates that 10.4 million refugees currently live in camps, shelters, and urban areas worldwide. An additional 4.8 million live in camps in the Middle East. The UNCHR is only able to resettle about 1% of those 10.4 million annually, while many live in camps for decades. Rather than getting better, this trend is accelerating in recent years due to Syrian, Iraqi, and other conflicts. Notably, the US accepts as many refugees as all other countries put together.

Finally, economic and familial immigrants are those who cross borders to reunite with family or for economic opportunity. The United States has granted legal permanent residents to an average of 870,000 immigrants annually since 1995.[5] These economic immigrants usually do not fear persecution like refugees, and the US government generally admits them because they have family in the US or have an identified job or special skills. It is difficult to count those crossing the border illegally, but it is generally accepted that people crossing the border illegally are also usually trying to reunify with family or seeking an escape from crippling poverty. An interesting 2013 study suggested that Mexican border crossers often felt they had a higher moral obligation to provide for their families than to obey US immigration law.

Lowell’s Irish, French Canadians, Greeks, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanians, Armenians, and Portuguese populations were largely economic/familial immigrants. It’s important to note that when many of these groups were arriving, immigration was largely unrestricted. Prior to 1875 there was no restrictive immigration bill, and only Asians were restricted prior to 1921.[6]  Also of note is that the Spanish-speaking population of Lowell is largely Puerto Rican, US citizens by birth.

In summary, asylees cross the US border to ask for asylum and are a relatively small group. Refugees are registered overseas, then a small number are referred to the US. Economic/familial immigrants are by far the largest group, more than eleven times as many legal economic/familial immigrants arrive in Massachusetts than refugees each year. Each of these groups has different legal status and challenges, and each must complete naturalization procedures to become United States citizens. Despite their differences, I’ve learned that the groups bring similar, quantifiable benefits to their host communities despite their differences.

*Chart: 2002-2012 average annual refugee count from 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, population count from 2010 decennial census.

“Responsibility and Cost”

Massachusetts officials clearly walked a tightrope trying to discuss the unaccompanied minors over the summer. According to the Sun, Senator Eileen Donaghue said, “The city of Lowell has always opened its arms to newcomers to this country, and that comes with quite a responsibility and a cost.” Others were more blunt. In the same article, Representative Marc Lombardo of Billerica “said Massachusetts has already allowed immigrants to take advantage of too many state resources.”

The existence of established refugee resettlement programs complicate the issue. A month before Governor Patrick’s announcement, the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts requested a halt to Somali refugee resettlement in his city, and the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire, unsuccessfully asked for a moratorium of refugee resettlement in his area in 2011. Those mayors argue their cities cannot absorb additional refugees because of scarce employment opportunities for non-English speakers and tight housing markets. Some argue these politicians are using refugees as scapegoats for deeper problems, while others argue that they are purposefully creating a wedge issue by mixing otherwise liberal voters’ negative sentiment about undocumented immigrants with legally resettled refugees.

Ostensibly, however, the Mayors’ arguments echo Senator Donaghue’s: A community has a responsibility to provide adequate housing and education to refugees and these services have a cost. What is that cost?

Immediate Costs

The first costs are immediate: transportation to the US, securing and furnishing housing, assistance with state and federal forms, school registration, and other immediate transition needs. A federal travel loan funds their transportation, while regional nonprofits provide the other services. In Lowell, the International Institute of Lowell provides these services.

I found a good estimate of costs by Baltimore’s refugee assistance nonprofit. They estimated the cost for this initial assistance as $5,291 per case in 2009—higher for families, lower for single people. The federal government provides an $1,800 per refugee grant to nonprofits, $1,125 of which goes directly to refugee families to pay for rent, clothing, and other necessities.[7] The rest must be locally raised through private donations, volunteer power, and in-kind donations. Because of their importance, we visited the International Institute, and we’ll talk about them in a future post.

Education Costs

Longer-term costs are more difficult to quantify. Mayor Elliot specifically asked for the costs of educating newcomer students. The report that Superintendent Franco provided to the council states directly:

The percent of students who are English Language Learners has not dramatically increased, however, the number of students who come to this country with Refugee status with no or limited formal schooling has increased and requires the district to expand Newcomer Programs.

These newcomer classes are specifically set up to acculturate students and teach English. According to the Superintendent’s report, the number of “newcomers” in Lowell K-12 increased by 253 students in 2013, or 49%, much higher than the previous four years. About half of these came as federally-resettled refugees, the others were other types of immigrants.[8] Each new Newcomer class costs $135,000: $115,000 for one teacher and one paraprofessional, and $20,000 for setup. In the last two years, the school system added seven of these classes, and three more are approved for next year.

However, answering the question requires more than a simple number. Other questions remain: how much more Newcomer classes are per-student than standard classes and what portion does the state already pay? The 2015 city budget plans for nearly 89% of Lowell’s school costs to be reimbursed by the state, even after increasing Lowell’s local contribution from 2014.

Healthcare and Social Assistance

Although the council did not directly suggest the cost of social assistance to refugees is a concern, I have heard this argument before. Like citizens, refugee families with children are eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and refugees with disabilities or senior citizens are eligible for Social Security. Many refugees are also eligible for Medicaid. Because they’re the same programs citizens use, these costs are shared by Massachusetts and the federal government.

The US Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) funds some programs specifically for refugees. Refugees who are low-income but do not qualify for other programs can take part in a Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance programs for eight months.

However, these are not permanent costs for most refugees. The ORR’s annual survey found that about 46% of refugees that arrived between 2007-12 received cash assistance and 61% received Medicaid. However, those who had been in the US the longest were less reliant on federal programs. For example, 27% of refugee households arriving in 2007 received Medicaid in 2012, nearly identical to the overall US rate of 26% receiving Medicaid in 2011.

Finally, ORR provides additional funding for refugee services that aren’t tied to a single family:

  • A matching grant of $2 for every $1 locally raised by nonprofits such as the International Institute to assist refugees become self-sufficient.[9]
  • Competitive grants for programs that, for example, help survivors of torture or for matching refugees’ investments toward home purchase, small business development, or post-secondary education.[10]
  • Funding for social services used by refugees on a state-by-state basis
  • Targeted Assistance for areas with large refugee populations: In Massachusetts, this includes Hampden (Springfield), Suffolk (Boston), and Worcester Counties, but not Middlesex. However, the Lowell School District does receive supplemental funding applied on a formula basis on refugees resettled, which is funneled through the state.

So, how much does a refugee cost?

Long story short, studies I’ve seen that quantify the cost/benefit of refugees show a net positive after a several years. These are not selected studies of communities with skilled refugees, but the same type of mixes Massachusetts receives. Notably, the costs are mostly paid for by states and federal government, while local governments and states reap most of the benefits.

While exploring the costs of refugees, I learned that it is hard to estimate a per-capita cost for all the services refugees use and how they’re funded. The ORR budget could be one proxy, but the $1.12 billion budgeted in 2013 covered administrative and processing expenses but did not cover expenses such as Medicaid. Despite this, there have been some notable efforts to capture the direct costs of refugees:

  • 1997 paper by a University of Richmond professor made an effort to estimate the direct cost of providing social services, and came up with $9,000[11] ($14,000 in 2014 dollars) with costs going down as the families become self-sufficient. He estimated state bore 22% of these costs. However, circumstances vary so much by individual, and so much has changed since 1995, I do not know if that number is useful beyond an order-of-magnitude estimate.
  • A more recent 2000 paper by a Hamilton College researcher estimated a local cost of $4,413 ($6,111 in 2014 dollars) for the first year of refugee households in Utica. This is nearly double the $3,080 estimated in 1997, but includes education and counts households, not individuals, unlike the 1997 study.
  • Finally, a 2013 paper considering state/local costs of healthcare and education in Tennessee estimated an average education cost of $1,692 per individual refugee in 2012 ($1,747 in 2014 dollars).

It is at least clear that refugees do have long-term healthcare and social service costs, and hosting states may pay several thousand dollars per refugee on average, at least for their first year. The federal government shoulders the rest.

However, only looking at costs is problematic at best. The fiscal benefits often outweigh the costs in the long-term:

  • The 2013 paper also estimated the amount of taxes refugees and businesses they owned paid: it was slightly more than the amount they “cost” in health and education services.
  • The 2000 paper created a cost/benefit model that used real data and assumptions to estimate that a refugee cohort in Utica, NY becomes an annual local net fiscal positive after six years and that their program that admits 750 individuals a year essentially pays for itself in increased tax revenue by year 23.
Chart showing fiscal impact of Refugees in Utica, NY.

Chart showing fiscal impact of refugees in Utica, NY. Different lines represent different discount rates (inflation assumptions). (Hagstrom, 2000)

I was worried that research for the post would show that refugees were a net fiscal drain. I thought that we should welcome refugees simply because they need help and we are able, and I thought that they bring an unquantifiable, diverse vitality that sets the United States apart from many other nations, but I never thought that it’s a good idea because it generates additional tax revenue. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that refugees are a long-term net fiscal positive for communities.

What about jobs?

However, these studies focused on tax revenue for communities, not the impacts on existing families in the community. What limited research I could find on broader impacts on employment suggests refugees follow the same pattern as other immigrants: the increased activity their spending and businesses create more than offset the jobs they “take.” This is especially pronounced in areas that would otherwise be shrinking in population. 

Notably, research on refugee economic impact is actually difficult to tease out: many studies focus on economic/familial immigrants rather than refugees. Those focusing on refugees often examine the places where refugees are most prevalent: developing host nations such as Jordan. Even those granted asylum in the US have different economic characteristics than refugees resettled from elsewhere.

However, it might be useful to start with immigration research. Most research shows that low-skill immigrants tend to depress wages for other low-skilled groups such as earlier immigrants or high school dropouts, but they don’t significantly affect the unemployment rate. Although an immigrant may take a job a native-born person would have otherwise taken, the immigrant creates additional demand for jobs at roughly the same rate. A very well-cited 1995 study on the available research stated:

There is no evidence of economically significant reductions in native employment. Most empirical analysis of the United States and other countries finds that a 10 percent increase in the fraction of immigrants in the population reduces native wages by at most 1 percent.

A more recent 2003 study finds a larger wage depression among low-skilled workers: between .4 and 7.4%. However, that may be offset by other groups’ wages increasing by up to 10% as they see larger customer bases and can delegate low-skilled tasks more effectively. Immigration helps the overall economy, but might create problems for certain people at the lowest rungs.

However, the research on a national level does not suggest whether there are effects on individual communities that receive immigrants. In fact, research from UC Davis shows that in the long run, the greatest positive effect—an increase in output and wage per average worker—happens where the most immigration is taking place.

Are refugees similar to other immigrants? One can imagine many ways the groups are different. Economic/familial immigrants choose to come to the US, while violence or persecution force refugees out of their countries. Refugees may have more trauma and may have spent years in camps. However, some may actually be very educated and skilled. Iraqi refugees, for example, include doctors and engineers.

To begin with, refugees do find employment in their host communities. In its 2012 annual report, the Office of Refugee Resettlement found that refugees arriving 2007-2012 had an unemployment rate of 16%, double that of the US’s rate of 8%.

However, those who arrived in 2007 had only a 12% unemployment rate and in fact had a higher labor force participation rate (74% vs. 63%) than the US as a whole. Far from being a burden, a larger proportion of refugees who have had a few years to acculturate are employed than the US as a whole. In some years, the employment rate of all refugees was similar to that of the US population, but a large gap developed after the 2007-08 recession.

In fact, research bears out the idea that refugees start behind other immigrants, but make greater gains over time. A 2004 study at Princeton University found that refugees in a cohort of immigrants that arrived in 1975-1980 (at that time, mainly southeast Asians) earned 6% less than other immigrants in the cohort in 1980, but in 1990 they earned 20% more that others in the cohort.

This translates to positive impacts on hosting economies. In 2012, Chmura Economics & Analytics studied the impact of refugees on their host economies for Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland. It found a study showing a 1.5 multiplier of Afghan refugees in Young, Australia partly because they offset a native population decline. It also cited a Lewin Group study of refugees in Houston, Miami, and Sacramento, and found that 30 to 38% of refugee households owned a home, increasing the neighborhood stability in those communities.

The Chmura researchers used a computer model to estimate the direct and indirect impact of refugee spending in the Cleveland area and the increased economic activity attributable to refugee-owned businesses. It estimated that the economic impact of refugees in Greater Cleveland was $48 million or the support of 650 jobs in 2012. It’s not a bad return on $6.4 million, presuming Ohio spends roughly the same amount per refugee locally as Tennessee.

This is a lot of information and a lot of assumptions that Lowell might behave similarly to other similar places, but it seems that there’s more research pointing toward immigrants helping overall economies on the local level than not. However, there is not a lot of consensus on whether low-skilled immigrants depress wages for other low-skilled workers. If we are concerned the benefits of immigration disproportionately are given to higher-skilled workers and leave lower-skilled workers behind, I might suggest crafting policy based on reducing inequity.

What’s It All Mean?

Arabic language class at International Institute of Lowell

Arabic language class at International Institute of Lowell, from

Researchers contest the effects of immigration, and refugees aren’t well studied, as they are only a tiny subset of immigrants. However, even when you ignore all the immaterial benefits refugees bring such as vitality, offsetting population loss, and a greater diversity of cultural offerings, it is clear that refugees aren’t simply a cost or burden on struggling economies. Rather, they get jobs, pay taxes, start businesses, and offset the costs of early assistance: with one study saying that starts after refugees pay for all the local costs of resettlement after only a couple of decades.

Aurora and I hope to dive in with more research on this issue. We’re going to visit the International Institute, talk to a refugee family, and compare Lowell’s refugees to other cities. We hope to discuss all the unquantifiable benefits (and possibly costs) in these posts, but most importantly, try to understand the men, women, and children that we’re hosting. Regardless, I’ve definitely come to believe the price we pay for supporting newcomers isn’t just a burden; it’s an investment for Lowell.


[1] 2013 US Census American Community Survey 1-year estimate. Margin of error 335. Counts US citizens born outside of the country (Such as those born in US Territories or those born to citizens travelling abroad).

[2] The UN, for its part, pushed for an update to that definition over the summer. Also notable is that the immigration law works somewhat differently for adults, children from Mexico and Canada, and children from elsewhere. Although that’s not a focus of this article, there’s a bit of easy-to-read information in this Vox article.

[3] All stats current to 2012 from

[4] Almost all refugee referrals come from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and referrals are evaluated by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. See the US Department of State’s webpage on the matter.

[5] Including refugees, recent years rival the turn of the century for era with the most immigrants to the US, although immigrants were a higher proportion of the population in the 1900s than now.

[6] In a 1921 bill, later amended in 1924, the US set “quotas” for each country. Those countries could not send more immigrants than their quota. The quotas were set to limit the amount of people immigrating from countries the US found “undesirable” at that time. These bills limited the number of Jewish refugees the US could accept during the Holocaust. Only in 1943 was the exclusion of Chinese immigrants repealed, and in 1965, our modern immigration system was more or less put in place with the Hart-Cellar Act.

[7] The grant was increased substantially in 2010. Prior to that, it was only $900. However, the value of the grant decreases each year because it does not track with inflation.

[8] Students scored with an English Proficiency 1 or 2 on a scale to 6 are given “newcomer” status. Thanks to Kim Scott for “Our Changing Population” report from Superintendent Jean Franco, and thanks to Derek Mitchell for an estimate on children arriving as federally-resettled refugees.

[9] Maximum of $2,200 per refugee served. According to Derek Mitchell of the International Institute, this money is highly restrictive and only applies to certain families. It covers rental payments for up to six months for certain families involved in certain employment programs. Self sufficiency is tracked as part of the program. Last year, the national average was about 72% of families self-sufficient within first six months of arrival. The International Institute of Lowell’s numbers were similar.

[10] CMAA and Lowell health providers have received many of these grants.

[11] This does not count the author’s estimate of initial resettlement costs, which was somewhat lower.

Dining in The Acre: Olympia Restaurant

Since Chris and I are adding food blogging to our repertoire, I wanted to write up another place we’ve visited. A couple weeks ago we went out on a Saturday night to the Olympia, one of Lowell’s Greek restaurants. According to their website, they’re the oldest, founded by a Greek immigrant in the 1950’s.

Chris and I are vegetarian (I’m sure you’re all shocked) and I have to say this wasn’t the best place for that: everybody in the online reviews talks about lamb. But we found plenty to eat. We split tzatziki (tasty yogurt dip), spanakopita, saganaki (fried cheese), and Zorba fries. All were to our liking, and I especially recommend dipping the zingy Zorba fries in the yogurt dip.

Saturday night they seemed relatively busy but not jammed full. I was interested to notice, looking around, how many of the other diners seemed to be Greek, especially big family groups. It always seems like a good sign when an ethnic restaurant is popular within its own community. Lowell has a lot of strong ethnic neighborhoods and communities, and the Greek community is an especially active group.

The Olympia’s website says they’re in an “historic location”, and they’re right. Lowell’s Greek neighborhood had historically been in this area of town, known as the Acre. The Acre is west of downtown, and you can figure out a lot about its history in a stroll around the neighborhood. A couple things that should clue you in to it’s ethnic history: the stunningly beautiful St. Patrick’s, pointing to the Acre’s original population of Irish immigrants, and the gold topped Holy Trinity Orthodox church, with the distinctive domes that are often a clue to a Greek neighborhood.

Photo by Chris

St. Patrick’s Church

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Another thing you’ll probably notice are housing projects, which were very controversial when they were first built in 1939. Like a lot of Urban Development up through the 1970’s, the project didn’t see a problem with displacing vibrant ethnic neighborhoods in exchange for “modern” redevelopment. In the name of progress, many traditional neighborhoods and historic buildings were knocked down for housing projects and highways. Some cities accidentally dealt themselves mortal wounds in this process, and are still struggling to recover from the choices they’ve made.

North Common Village going up in 1940. Read more about the project and the Greek community’s history here.

Lowell has made mistakes, but it’s been really lucky in a lot of ways.  Lowell still has really strong ethnic communities and strong neighborhood pride, and lots of people working to keep both around. Despite being displaced by the Acre’s changes, the Greek Community is still a proud force in Lowell. Meanwhile, the Acre’s a much broader mix of people than it used to be, but it still has a sense of identity. The Coalition For a Better Acre and the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) are actively working to make the neighborhood a better place.

Stick around as Chris and I continue to explore Lowell’s diversity in the tastiest ways possible. Let us know if you have any recommendations!  The blog’s a great excuse to eat out.