Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Agency helping Burmese refugees loses contract (Waterbury, CT)

Agency helping Burmese refugees loses contract

May 10, 2008



The State Department has canceled its contract with the agency responsible for resettling 64 Burmese refugees to Waterbury. In response, Connecticut’s congressional delegation has sent a letter of protest to the state department, asking it to give the International Institute of Connecticut more time to settle its problems.

This follows months of reports of poor housing, fractious relationships with volunteers, missed immunizations for students and insufficient assistance with daily tasks. The State Department brought the refugees here to escape the tyranny in their native Myanmar.

“I’ve heard of agencies being under investigation and there being a threat of canceling a contract, but this is the first time I’ve known about a particular case being canceled,” said Stephanie J. Nawyn, a sociologist at Michigan State University who studies resettlement. “I do think this is unusual.”

Still unclear is who will be responsible for the refugees in Waterbury. Lavinia Limon, director of the umbrella organization that holds the contract, says the institute is not legally responsibility to assist refugees who have been here more than 90 days. Most of the refugees in Waterbury arrived in late August and September, although a few more families have trickled in since then.

“The contractual obligations of the International Institute actually doesn’t exist any more,” Limon said. “We don’t know what the consequences of this is. There will be a large hole in the community. They’ve been providing services to refugees for 90 years.”

The State Department says the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, of which the institute is an affiliate, will need to come up with a plan to serve the refugees.

Limon said she was puzzled and surprised by the action, believing the institute was fixing its problems. “It does seem a very harsh step after 90 years. I had every expectation that the deficiencies would be corrected.”

So did Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, whose office was said to have spearheaded the letter to the State Department.

“The IIC has made it clear that they are taking the necessary steps to improve their resettlement program, including incorporating the recommendations of the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants” Dodd spokesman Bryan DeAngelis said. “The IIC has only asked to be returned to suspension status, so they can continue to make the necessary improvements in their program, and the Senator believes their request should be considered fully by the State Department.”

A State Department spokesman, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said he was shocked at the delegation’s support for the institute. “I’d love to know why they’re coming so quickly to the defense of an organization that is clearly not doing its job,” he said. The spokesman said State Department investigators were shocked and embarrassed by the squalid apartments where the refugees were initially housed.

Waterbury-area volunteers helping the refugees, who have been frustrated with the institute for being unresponsive, and often abrasive to volunteers. “They obviously haven’t followed this story,” said Joanne Robertson, of Watertown’s First Congregational Church. Robertson said she intended to contact the delegation to alert them of the difficulties the volunteers and refugees have faced.

“It’s a conundrum to me why they do this,” Robertson said of the institute. “I just don’t see them helping volunteers further helping these individuals. If they could just give us little bits of information, we could go miles with it.”

But Rep. Christopher S. Murphy’s, D-5th District, said despite the institute’s problems, the institute’s role and history should be considered. “This agency is one of the few outlets that we have for refugee resettlement in Connecticut and we hope that the State Department can work out a way to fix the problems that exist and continue the resettlement activities that are so important to these people in need,” said Kristen Bossi, Murphy’s communications director.

In 2006 the State Department issued a report critical of the institute’s resettlement practices in Bridgeport. That report chastised the institute for putting refugees in dirty, roach-infested apartments with leaking windows, insufficient insulation, poor lighting and broken smoke detectors.

International Institute Executive Director Myra M. Oliver has said the Waterbury apartments were fine when the institute placed about 38 refugees there this fall and that the apartments deteriorated quickly. But others who saw the apartments as early as November, including Cheryl Newland of Living Faith Christian Church and Kate Lockwood, a teacher at West Side Middle School in Waterbury, said the apartments were deplorable.

According to its 2006 income tax-exemption form, the institute receives $433,476 of its $1.1 million budget from the federal government. The rest is made up of United Way grants and fees for professional services it provides immigrants. More than half of its budget goes to salaries, including $100,016 to Oliver.

The organization reports it has helped more than 100,000 immigrants and refugees become “valued and productive citizens,” since 1918. In 2006, for instance, it provided 3,317 people with immigration and naturalization counseling, but processed only 67 refugees.

Diana Monti, of Living Faith Christian Church, believes the institute has done a poor job teaching the Burmese refugees to deal with critical daily tasks, like mailing a letter or paying a bill. “They brought them here. But whose job is it to teach them how to write a check, how to pay a bill? I don’t see the follow-through. If we didn’t step in, where would they be today?”


Christopher Coen wrote on May 10, 2008 1:35 PM:

” When the World Relief refugee program in Port Richey, Florida (Tampa area) was shut down in 2006 for abuses and deficiencies similar to the ones in this case, many of the refugees were left high and dry.

The affiliate began by destroying all of the refugees’ documents, including paperwork for pending immigration cases. There didn’t seem to be any consequences for that outrageous action from the State Department or Florida’s refugee coordinator. To this day refugees in the Tampa area still do not have green cards, seven years after their arrival, thus jeopardizing their ability even to work legally in the U.S. We recently counted seven Lost Boys of Sudan refugees in New Port Richey, FL alone who still did not have green cards seven years after their arrival.

A Liberian refugee mother’s immigration case to bring her husband to join the family was closed for lack of activity. With an infant and three other young children she has struggled to maintain fulltime employment and care for her children while also sending money to her husband in Africa, a displaced refugee in Ghana who is unable to find any work. Had the U.S. refugee program operated with some integrity and responsibility this refugee woman’s husband would be in the U.S. now and helping to support his family.

When the State Department closes a refugee affiliate agency – and only in cases of extreme neglect and/or media scrutiny – the refugees often get swept under the rug.

Christopher Coen
Friends of Refugees

Charles Martel wrote on May 10, 2008 12:34 PM:

” The International Institute of Connecticut enjoys a very cozy relationship with the local INS office. Most of the staffers at IIC are retired senior INS officials. It also appears that the IIC and the INS share similar attitudes when it comes to immigrants which is take the money and run. “

4 Responses to “Agency helping Burmese refugees loses contract (Waterbury, CT)”

  1. […] Agency helping Burmese refugees loses contract (Waterbury, CT) […]

  2. Mary said

    Can you tell us how often a VOLAG is audited by its funder? Second, how can a citizen get copies of their financial records? I have been hearing about discriminatory funding of the Match Grant program in NJ, and wanted to obtain records from 2009 – 10.


    • The State Department contract document known as “Guidelines for Participants” requires national affiliates do on-site monitoring of each affiliate in its network at least every three years, if they resettled more than 25 refugees in the previous fiscal year.


      Guidelines for Participants

      VI. Performance Standards
      A. National Agency Program Management
      2. On-Site Monitoring,
      (a) Frequency of Monitoring
      Headquarters should maintain records verifying that it conducts on-site monitoring of each affiliate and sub-office in its network at least every three years, unless the office has resettled fewer than 25 refugees during the previous fiscal year. Headquarters should also perform and document monitoring visits to affiliate offices that have experienced a turnover in resettlement directors within one year of the new director’s appointment. Bureau exceptions to these requirements, which should be requested only in exceptional circumstances, should also be documented.

    • The Matching Grant Program is funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. You could use a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the Matching Grant documents relative to your local resettlement agency. You must request documents rather than information, so you have to first have an idea of what documents exist for the Matching Program. On the ORR website they list these documents here:

      •Appendix 2 form
      •Appendix 3 form
      •MG Program Progress Report Form
      •GPRA form

      Submit your FOIA here:

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