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Fredericksburg

Housing Costs Push Refugees Far Beyond the Beltway

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page C05

Refugee agencies have begun settling people in the Fredericksburg area for the first time, saying housing costs closer to Washington are too steep.

The first group of refugees began arriving a year ago, when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington and the Virginia Council of Churches opened a refugee resettlement office in Fredericksburg. The partnership has brought about 35 people from Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba and Pakistan, said Heather Gomez, who runs the office.

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"We felt employment in Fredericksburg was no worse [than in Northern Virginia] and housing was better," said Seyoum Berhe, director of the diocese's office of resettlement.

For years, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has had a moratorium on settling refugees in Northern Virginia who don't have established family ties in the United States, citing the cost of living, Berhe said. The conference is the nation's largest resettlement agency, finding homes for one-third of the refugees who come to the United States. It is also the largest in the state, settling about 200 people each year.

Expensive housing close to the nation's capital is the driving force for targeting not only central Virginia but also parts of Maryland outside the Washington suburbs as a destination for refugees. In 1999, the International Rescue Committee, one of the agencies approved by the State Department to settle refugees and those seeking asylum, opened an office in Baltimore. The office settled 318 people in Baltimore in 2004, said Suzy Cop, director of the Washington-Baltimore office.

About half of the refugees in Virginia are settled beyond the Washington suburbs, and specialists say they can sometimes face difficult issues.

The main destination areas in the state outside the Washington region are Richmond, Roanoke and Tidewater, said Kathy Cooper, state refugee coordinator. But on the fringes of those metropolitan areas, there can be little public transportation and few language programs.

The primary factors in deciding where to settle refugees -- the only managed class of immigrants -- are housing, jobs, language programs and the availability of people who can act as sponsors.

"Refugee resettlement outside cities is not unusual. It just happens de facto because a lot of the resettlement agencies are rural churches," said Michael Fix, a vice president of the Migration Policy Institute who focuses on how immigrants integrate. The fastest proportional growth of immigrants in the country is in such exurbs as Fredericksburg, Fix said.

The opening of the Fredericksburg Refugee Resettlement Program comes as transplants from Africa gain new prominence in Virginia. Africans were the largest single group of new refugees to arrive in Virginia last year, figures show.

Generose Mubangu, her husband, Anana Wankenge, their four children and a niece are one of the African families Gomez has placed near Fredericksburg. The family fled civil war in Congo in 1999 and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to Stafford County in March. They communicated through Generose's brother, Sam Mubangu, a U.S. Army attorney who came to this country in 1981 as a refugee.

Three children attend public schools in Stafford, and Mubangu and the two eldest work together at a Days Inn. Wankenge works at a mattress company in Fredericksburg. None has a car, so members of a nearby church have driven them to work, as well as bought them clothes and helped them adjust to an American-style home. Recently, the women began taking taxis to and from their jobs.

Sometimes, their adaptation to U.S. customs has been a little rocky.

"One of the other ladies found out they were baking chicken not in a pan but right on the [oven] rack," said Diane Saunders, 64, who is active with the United Methodist Church.

The family speaks Swahili and French but not English, and Sam Mubangu said it is difficult for them to be without language skills and public transportation.

When he heard that his sister's family was to be placed in Stafford, he said his first reaction was: "You have to be realistic. All I cared about was for her to leave the refugee camp." However, "with no bus, no train, it's difficult to parachute someone in from another country [who] has no independence to go to stores when they want. It's very tough."


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