Saturday, June 3, 2023

Seeking Aid: Afghan refugees receive questionable help from non-profit organization

Following the Islamic State Group-led attacks in Kabul this past August that left at least 73 dead, over 850 Afghan refugees were forced to evacuate and begin their new lives in five cities across Ohio, including over 35 that came to Toledo. The non-profit organization, US Together, that assists refugees in getting acclimated to their new lives, gave its word to step in and help out.

“We do what we’re supposed to do – find homes, provide food and medical attention so they [the refugees] can stand on their feet,” says Corine Dehabey, director of programs at the US Together Toledo Office. The statewide organization has offices in Columbus and Cleveland, all of which aims to coordinate, organize and initiate services to refugees and immigrants through education, advocacy, support services, information, referrals, and networking opportunities.

Corine says when the refugees arrived in Toledo, the U.S. government provided a one-time $1,050 stipend to assist each individual to give them time to apply for other forms of government assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. US Together supplemented this with covered rent costs. “When they arrived in November, we placed them in Airbnb’s and hotels and we paid $30,000 in rent for everyone,” says Corine. “We’ve been diving into different funds and contacting different programs so that we can continue to pay their rent.”

Amid reports from volunteers and refugees that the organization hasn’t helped out, Corine denies any wrongdoing. “That information is totally untrue.”

“Through comprehensive services and a strong partnership with local organizations, US Together is dedicated to the individuals we serve,” says Maria Teverovsky, director of development for US Together. Maria adds that the allegations are not reflective of the majority of refugees or volunteers.

According to Becca Gorman, a volunteer for US Together, she says it’s more than “helping out” – it’s about “getting it done.” She says US Together are there to help and have been helpful to a certain extent, but they will overstate the help they offer. For example, when it comes to the essentials, such as ensuring they have proper clothes for the weather, transportation to and from the grocery store, or making sure they have fresh food to put on the table, Becca says Corine and the caseworkers at US Together are absent.

“They don’t check on them every two weeks like they’re supposed to. It seems the caseworkers visit once a month, on their own time, with no notice or follow up. I have refugees sending me photos of food they received from US Together that has bugs in it, and that’s just not right.”

Cries for Help
Becca alleges Corine is very hard to work with and the demands she puts on the shoulders of the volunteers is too much. In several letters secured by the Toledo City Paper, Becca and other volunteers reference high labor demands and poor management from the non-profit.

  • One of those letters was sent to Gary Byers, board of Lucas County commissioners, on behalf of several volunteers, alleging the organization relies profoundly on the volunteers, almost to a fault. “The volume of refugees that our community is welcoming is much higher than we are accustomed to serving…” In addition, the volunteers say the fault lies on the “poor leadership and management.”
  • On February 2, Jeffrey Vanderhorst, a volunteer who has been helping nine refugees himself, sent a hand-written letter to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Jeffrey writes, in part, “If it wasn’t for myself and other volunteers who have helped the refugees, I don’t know how they would have survived. US Together staff has had minimal contact with these men. I believe the director of the local US Together office has been willfully neglecting these men.”

Communication Issues
When asked if the claims are true about difficult communication between US Together and the volunteers and refugees, Corine says, “Not at all.” She says herself and case managers take phone calls all day long and on weekends to make sure the refugees are taken care of. “We’re always in contact and we’re always talking with them on the phone. When we can’t answer, we return their calls whenever we can.”

“That’s just false,” says Becca. “You can never reach her… you ask questions and you can’t get answers.” She adds, “I remember on multiple occasions where I’ve tried calling or texting her and the refugees tried calling or texting her but we never got a response.”

Becca also cites the refugees’ inability to speak English that makes it challenging to comprehend what they need. Volunteers are forced to compensate for the lack of an in-person translator with Google translate. “It’s something that US Together needs to help with, but the help doesn’t come,” says Becca. “We are faced with problems so many times because of the need for translating. Many times, I put something into Google translate but they can’t understand it.”

“These vulnerable people will continue to be at her [Corine’s] mercy,” says Becca. “It’s carelessness and it’s neglect. These refugees need to be able to rely on the organization.”

“We’re doing all the best for our clients,” says Corine. “We have our organization’s name and our reputation on the line so if we’re doing anything wrong, we wouldn’t be allowed to be here.”

Maria adds that these allegations are an isolated issue as there have not been any issues in the Cleveland or Columbus offices.

At the end of February, the refugees surpassed 100 days of being in Toledo.

If you would like to learn more about US Together, you can visit the website by clicking here.

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