The refugee assistance organization “Murfreesboro Roots for Refugees”(MR4R) is busy providing services to refugees being resettled in Rutherford County. MR4R has taken over refugees abandoned in Murfreesboro by the World Relief resettlement agency. It was announced during the March MR4R meeting that they were assisting 17 families that totaled over 100 individuals including 65 kids and no longer restricting their assistance to Syrian refugees.
The recent merger of Abdou Kattih’s “Home Away From Home” and Melissa Sohrabi’s “Roots for Refugees” now called MR4R, appears to be the the first organized refugee resettlement initiative in the county.
During the March meeting, Kattih and Sohrabi discussed how they provided food, clothing and furniture needed by the arriving refugee families. They also detailed arranging to meet needed medical and dental services along with providing community orientation to newly arrived refugees.
These are some of the same “core” services detailed in the Cooperative Agreement that federal refugee contractors sign and for which they are paid to provide. There are additional support services that are also provided with federal grants to “ethnic community based organizations (ECBO)” or “mutual assistance associations (MAA).”
Kattih is a Syrian who immigrated to the U.S. to join his parents in Chattanooga but then moved to Middle Tennessee to work as a pharmacist. He began his refugee support work in 2015, using the Murfreesboro Muslim Youth (MMY) group with a program called “Home Away From Home” supported in part with a $14,210.00 budget. The following year, MMY’s financial statement showed income of $86,951 from grants, donations and a $52,000 line item called “Refugees Income.” Kattih confirmed to The Tennessee Star that the $52,000 was not a sub-grant from the Tennessee Office for Refugees that disburses federal funding.
Kattih and Sohrabi’s MR4R operates much like when the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE) started before being granted full VOLAG status through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. VOLAGs, short for voluntary agencies, are paid by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees & Migration to provide certain services to refugees during the initial 30-90 day resettlement period.
NICE was started by Gatluak Thach a former refugee from Sudan who now serves as the President and CEO of his refugee resettlement agency. Founded in 2005 as an ethnic assistance organization and originally named the Sudanese Community and Women’s Service Center, NICE has expanded to serve refugees, asylees and immigrants of African and Middle Eastern descent. In 2010, NICE was approved by the U.S. State Department to became a contracted local affiliate of the national Ethiopian Community Development Council VOLAG. During that first fiscal year, NICE resettled 75 refugees, slowly increasing the number annually to 315 individuals in the 2016 fiscal year, a number that may increase again in fiscal 2017 with the closure of World Relief’s Nashville resettlement office.
NICE receives direct federal funding to resettle refugees in Middle Tennessee and provide other services to them. According to its annual reports, NICE has prospered financially from its contractor status with federal grants as high as $906,348 in 2012 making up 88 percent of its total budget:
- 2010 $175,233 (56.5% of total budget)
- 2011 $400,503 (76%)
- 2012 $906,348 (88%)
- 2013 $805,031 (80%)
- 2014 $1,219,679 (77%)
- 2015 $1,113,582 (73%)
- 2016 $1,305,399 (70%)
According to a 2012 GAO report, federal funding for initial refugee placement is structured to incentivize the contractors to maintain or increase the number of refugees they resettle every year:
Because refugees are generally placed in communities where national voluntary agency affiliates have been successful in resettling refugees, the same communities are often asked to absorb refugees year after year. One state refugee coordinator noted that local affiliate funding is based on the number of refugees they serve, so affiliates have an incentive to maintain or increase the number of refugees they resettle each year rather than allowing the number to decrease.
In fiscal year 2016, federal contractors resettled 1,959 refugees spread across many cities and towns in Tennessee including Antioch, Knoxville, Nashville, Smyrna, Chattanooga, Cordova, Germantown La Vergne, Sevierville, Spring Hill, and Murfreesboro. To date in the current fiscal year, 989 refugees have been resettled in the state.
According to State Department data on refugee placements, since 2008, when the Catholic Charities TN Office for Refugees began operating the refugee resettlement program after the State of Tennessee withdrew, an average of 1,450 refugees annually are brought to Tennessee. These same reports show that refugees are being placed in Murfreesboro. With the closure of World Relief’s Nashville office, resettlement contractors are more likely to rely on MR4R to continue and to increase refugee placements in Murfreesboro.