Catholic Charities of Tennessee says it is not responsible for the failures of its subrecipient, World Relief, to provide basic services to newly arrived refugees in Murfreesboro.
Those shortcomings were all too real for volunteer organizer Melissa Sohrabi, who started crying during a March meeting in Rutherford County while detailing federal resettlement contractor World Relief’s neglect and failure to provide essential survival services to the refugees they placed in Murfreesboro.
A third family “had nothing but a mattress and sheets, no blankets,” she told the audience that night (beginning at 2:02 in the YouTube video above):
They didn’t know how to work the thermostat, they were freezing. They were scared and they were so relieved because Saffi knew their language. They had been there for several days with no contact with anyone. They did not know how to get in touch with their caseworker and with no language skills they didn’t know where to go or who to ask to even how to get help.
We immediately took them to Greenhouse Ministries which is a great support system helping underprivileged people here in Murfreesboro and they graciously, with very few questions, gave them blankets and food and clothes and dishes and toiletries and that is how we began.
Sohrabi’s tears came during the Murfreesboro Muslim Youth (MMY) meeting at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Murfreesboro where organizers who were soliciting help for refugees dropped off in Rutherford County by federal resettlement contractors also disclosed that essential services had not been provided.
Maegan Hughes, the Grants and Communication Specialist from Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees (TOR) explained at the meeting that “TOR distributes funding from the [federal] Office of Refugee Resettlement which is in the Department of Health and Human Services, and then we monitor those agencies and make sure that they’re doing what they said they were going to do with the funds that we provided and then we have to report that back to ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement.”
But Hughes’ boss at Catholic Charities of Tennessee, State Refugee Coordinator (SRC) Holly Johnson, despite admitting in her email to The Tennessee Star, that “I have read about a few complaints that were made” by the volunteer group in Murfreesboro, indicated that ensuring whether refugee contractor World Relief provided food and clothing to the refugees it resettled, was not her responsibility. Johnson also confirmed that her agency, TOR, had sub-granted funding to World Relief and had monitored the contractor:
Yes, we do monitor all subrecipients to ensure program and fiscal compliance.
We did award funding to World Relief offices in Nashville and Memphis in both FFY 16 and FFY 17.
The World Relief Nashville office received a programmatic monitoring in December 2016 and a fiscal monitoring a couple weeks ago.
I have read about a few complaints that were made by MR4R [Murfreesboro Roots for Refugees] about World Relief’s efforts in Murfreesboro. What I’ve read centers around the State Department’s Reception and Placement program, and would be monitored either by PRM (division of the Dept of State) or by World Relief’s national HQ. We funded some initial cash and medical assistance as well as job placement programs and training for teachers in Murfreesboro so they’ll know what to expect from their refugee students. These programs were carried out well, meeting the expectations (programmatically and fiscally) of the grants.
Johnson’s position as the State Refugee Coordinator is defined in federal regulations “to be responsible for, and who is authorized to, ensure coordination of public and private resources in refugee resettlement.” And, TOR’s application submitted to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under Johnson’s signature, confirms this understanding:
State Refugee Coordinator. TOR is responsible for the coordination of all refugee resettlement services in Tennessee. The Director of TOR, who also serves as the State Refugee Coordinator, is Holly Johnson.
While Johnson admits sub-granting funds to World Relief and admits being aware that essential survival services were not provided to refugees, she suggests that her office is not accountable because the services were part of a State Department grant of funds and not related to funds sub-granted by TOR. Monitoring reports issued by either Johnson’s office or the State Department are only available through Freedom of Information Act requests that typically remain unanswered.
Refugee advocate Chris Coen has questioned the arrangement where SRCs whose agencies have resettlement programs of their own, monitor other resettlement agencies:
By the way, in the curious arrangement of contractors and government oversight agencies in the US refugee resettlement program, Becky Jordan is not only the Executive Director of Catholic Charities Refugee Services in Louisville, a refugee resettlement private contractor, and Kentucky’s state refugee coordinator, she is also part of ORR’s site visit teams that inspect other refugee resettlement contractors. For example, Ms. Jordan was part of ORR site visit team that inspected Louisiana’s refugee resettlement program in February 2011. Therefore, sometimes Ms. Jordan is inspecting her colleagues at resettlement contractors in other states and some day maybe one of them will be inspecting her agency.
SRC Holly Johnson is an employee of Catholic Charities of Tennessee which in addition to being paid by the federal government to operate TOR, also receives federal funding to resettle refugees in Tennessee.
According to the State Department’s data bank, 937 refugees have been brought to Tennessee so far in fiscal year 2017. During the same time period during the 2016 fiscal year, 993 refugees had been brought to Tennessee ending the 2016 fiscal year with a total of 1,959 refugees that federal contractors were paid to bring refugees to the state.