Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” 

One year ago Brain wrote about refugees arriving in the U.S. in search of a better life. We’re republishing the column as Marshall takes a break.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.


RALEIGH – Since this is Thanksgiving week, it seems appropriate to stop and think about everything that we can be thankful for. I am going to do that today by looking at the United States through the eyes of arriving refugees. In 2018 I had a chance to experience a group of refugees living in a large (about 1,000 people) apartment complex in Raleigh.

These refugees come to the United States from all over the world: Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Syria, DRC, Somalia, Congo, Eritrea, Pakistan, etc. How do these refugees arrive in the United States? It goes something like this:

  • The UN (e.g. https://www.unhcr.org) looks at trouble spots all over the globe.
  • The UN finds people who are at risk of dying because of the conditions in their country. The conditions can include things like ethnic cleansing, civil war, etc.
  • These endangered people go onto a prioritized list, which the UN circulates among developed countries who agree to accept refugees.
  • Each country agrees to take in X refugees per year, whatever X is for the country.
  • The refugees that the U.S. agrees to take are vetted by the United States.
  • The chosen refugees are transported out of their refugee camps and flown into the United States.

A typical “refugee” is often a refugee family. It might consist of a mother, father and their children. Sometimes there is only one parent, but two is more common. Sometimes there is a grandmother or aunt as well.

The family arrives in the United States. In the case of Raleigh, this means they arrive at RDU airport. The family, it is important to note, is responsible for paying for their plane tickets into the U.S. They sign a promissory note and have three years to repay the loan for the tickets. Once the family lands at RDU, a volunteer picks the family up and brings them to their new apartment in this apartment complex. This video describes the process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhSnlgeXQ8Q

This apartment complex is a “normal apartment complex” with normal market-rate rents. Meaning that it is not public housing, or subsidized housing. It is not a luxury apartment complex by any means, but it is a normal apartment complex on the lower-end of the spectrum. The residents of the apartment complex I visited came from all over the world.

Prior to the family’s arrival, the U.S. government contracts with a refugee agency in the United States this agency is typical. The refugee agency will have a three-month engagement with the family and is responsible for things like:

  1. Renting an apartment for the family and having the apartment ready to go before the family arrives.
  2. Furnishing the apartment (beds, kitchen table and chairs, sofa, etc.), along with dishes, pots, pans, sheets, blankets, towels, soap, toilet paper, etc. There is a specific checklist that the agency must fulfill. Most of this stuff is used or donated.
  3. Finding someone (usually volunteers) to transport the family from airport to apartment.
  4. Helping the family to acclimate to the apartment and get settled. Often these families come from very poor countries and have been living in primitive refugee camps for several years. They often do not know English at all and may not be able to read or write even in their own language. They have probably never seen light switches, hot and cold running water, showers, refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves, etc. They may have never had a bed or linens. They have to be taught how to use the apartment. They have to be taught how to cross the street and use the bus. They have to be taught how to shop for groceries. They have to be taught how to use the refrigerator, and what food to put where. And so on.
  5. Getting everyone in the family vaccinated and medically stabilized. The parents will receive several months of Medicaid. The children will receive Medicaid until they turn 19.
  6. Some initial cash to get started. Something like $5,000 when they arrive in the United States. This is likely to be the only money the family receives, but it is necessary because the family will need to pay rent, buy groceries, etc. prior to receiving their first paychecks.
  7. The agency will help get the children enrolled in the Wake county public school system (Raleigh is located in Wake county). The kids are dropped into the school system a few days after arrival. They may know no English, but after three months or so in the school system they typically have learned a good bit of the language through immersion, lessons, and osmosis. Volunteers working at the apartment complex will also help with tutoring.
  8. The agency will help one of the parents find a job. A typical first job might be working in a chicken slaughterhouse cutting up the meat for packaging, as this job requires no significant language or cultural skills. When you buy chicken breasts in the grocery store, it is possible that a newly arrived refugee in the United States helped prepare it.
  9. After three months, the agency detaches, and the family is on its own.

Refugees who arrive at the apartment complex are lucky in that there is a strong network of volunteers who help the refugees. The volunteers provide tutoring, run an after-school reading program for the children, monitor kids playing on the playground in the complex, help refugees fill out forms, help refugees get better jobs, and generally help act as an interface between this refugee community and the United States of America. About 1,000 refugees live in the apartment complex. The volunteers play a vital role in helping these refugee families to acclimate.

So, these refugees have come from all over the world, usually from extreme poverty, and additionally have come from desperate situations. The interesting thing about these refugees is that they are expected to figure out America very quickly. They do receive that small amount of money and furniture when they arrive, and Medicaid for the kids, but otherwise the refugees are pretty much on their own. With the help of the volunteers, and they are expected to make it work.

How do they do it?

How do the refugees do it? Since the agency helps the family get that first job, there is income coming in immediately, and then the second parent probably gets another job. Given the language problems at arrival along with all the other acclimation issues, these will normally be minimum wage jobs. Say both parents work at minimum wage jobs. They might together make $40,000 per year for the family. They probably receive an earned income tax credit, which helps a little too.

Therefore, the family is paying the rent payments, plus food, clothing, all the utilities, etc. They have the same bills any American family would have. One difference, in the beginning, is that the refugees are living simpler lives by American standards. For example, none of the refugees have cars when they arrive, so they use public transportation. They may buy clothing at a thrift store or receive donations from churches. And so on. So, on minimum wage, the refugees can support themselves comfortably. They tend to be very grateful for the opportunity to be in America.

The apartment complex likes renting to refugees for this reason: the refugees pay the rent on time and they do not cause trouble. The last thing these refugees want is to get evicted.

It really is an interesting perspective. If we were to go back in time 15 years and look at the same apartment complex then, I am told it was a completely different story. There were no volunteers, and it was poor Americans living in the complex rather than refugees. There were drugs, gang violence, and the police were there every night. It was a mess; a huge headache for the city, the landlord and the surrounding community. Now, with the refugees living there, and the volunteers helping them navigate life in the United States and acting as a shock absorber, all the gangs and drugs are gone.  The refugees also have a great work ethic, and they are sought after by local businesses.

One of the volunteers told me a story, after working at the apartment complex for 10 years. She sat with me at a picnic table in a little courtyard where there is a swing set for the children living in the complex. There were perhaps 20 kids playing in the courtyard together while we sat there. She pointed out that the kids all get along, even though they come from all across the planet. They work hard in school, even with the handicaps that come from being refugees with different languages and very different cultures. There are no drop-outs. Many make it into the Wake County community college system. Some of the children sometimes need intervention at school because they may not understand cultural norms in the United States. The parents navigate this kind of stuff with the help of the volunteers.

A miracle underway

Think about the miracle that is happening at this apartment complex:

  • We have distressed people (sometimes people who have been receiving active death threats) from all over the world arriving in the United States as refugees.
  • The refugees have nothing when they arrive – just the clothes on their backs.
  • The refugees generally do not know English, and often are illiterate in their own language.
  • The refugees have probably been living in amazing poverty in refugee camps, often for years.
  • Once the refugees arrive, they really are given very little: a few thousand dollars to cover rent and food for a few months, a low-rent but serviceable furnished apartment, Medicaid for the kids, and an initial job (generally bottom of the barrel) for one of the parents.
  • After three months, the refugees are pretty much on their own, with the help of the volunteers who donate their time at the apartment complex.

From this very simple starting point, the refugees build their lives. They work hard, they acclimate, they get better jobs. Eventually many of them buy cars, buy houses, gain their U.S. citizenship, and become full-fledged Americans. They do not receive welfare. In fact, the volunteers resist giving them anything. The first impulse of many people is to try to give the refugees free stuff – spare sofas, food, whatever. The volunteers discourage this kind of thing because the refugees: a) don’t want it, b) don’t need it, and c) don’t know what to do with a lot of the stuff they might receive. It is better to let them make their own way.

How is this possible? How can these people build their lives from absolutely nothing, and need no welfare? We can’t say it’s “the culture” the migrants come from, because they are coming from dozens of wildly different cultures, many dysfunctional.

A second chance at life

But the refugees do have one thing in common: they all come from desperate refugee camps. They come from years of abject poverty. They arrive with what we might call a “refugee mentality”. Where an American might look at a minimum wage job with disdain, a refugee looks at it as an amazing opportunity. An American might say, “No way am I working for $10 per hour.” A refugee might instead say, “I cannot believe I am lucky enough to be getting paid $10 for working an hour!” The countries they came from might have been paying 50 cents or a dollar an hour, maybe less. There may have been no jobs at all. $10 is amazing if that’s where you are coming from. It is cause for rejoicing. Where a migrant starts in abject poverty, with no hope, the arrival in America can unleash a new beginning and an incredible surge of possibilities. The refugee looks at it as an amazing opportunity and a second chance at life.

A volunteer told me a surprising story as we were wrapping up our conversation. Her husband had been laid off, and things were kind of uncomfortable. But then she looked at what these refugees can accomplish. She realized that she and her husband could sell everything, get a little apartment, get simple jobs and live simple lives, and they could make it work in America, starting from scratch. Thousands of refugee families every year prove that it is possible, because this is exactly what they do when they arrive in America. It really is inspirational to think about the world in this way.

Look at it through the eyes of a refugee family who is plucked out of the worst possible situation and then dropped in America. It is like winning a lottery. These refugees have no experience with the things we have, the things we take completely for granted. Things like running water, warm showers, electricity, light bulbs, air conditioning, refrigeration, nearby grocery stores full of food, and so on are miraculous. On Thanksgiving, we can give thanks for everything we do have.