Every day, Honey Omar wakes up excited to go to work. “It’s never a dull moment,” says Omar, a refugee case manager at YMCA International Services in Houston, Texas.
Omar herself is a refugee. Born in Somalia, she came to the United States with her family in 2015 after having lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for most of her life. Today, she is thankful for the opportunity to guide fellow refugees finalize their paperwork, enroll their children in school, and sign up for English language courses. She sweats the details, because she’s seen the consequences of sloppiness first-hand: When she first arrived here as a young adult, a typo caused her to be renamed as “Hanny” for all official purposes.
To ensure that her refugee clients are self-sufficient, Omar guides them through the early days in their new jobs—typically working in hospitality, retail, or manufacturing—and helps them manage their living expenses. “Whenever they find a job, I ask them to bring me their paycheck, so we can calculate how much they should be earning. If the job isn’t covering expenses, we start looking for a better job or find out how they can minimize their expenses,” she says.
In the Houston Metro Area, immigrants work predominately in construction, general services, administrative support, hospitality and manufacturing. They earn $45.7 billion a year and pay $11.7 billion in taxes annually. Refugees reflect these trends and have a particularly good track record of economic advancement, given the precarious nature of their first months in America. A 2017 report by New American Economy found that refugee families have a median household income of about $22,000 in their first five years but eventually earn more as their experience and prospects improves with more time in the country. By the time refugees have lived here for more than 25 year, they have a median household income of $67,000—a number slightly above with the national average.
Omar learned the importance of hard work during her time in the refugee camp. There, she was one of only two Somali girls who had a job. “Many people said, ‘There is no use for you to go to work, because where you belong is at home. You get married, have children, take care the family, and cook for your husband,” she said.
But, she ignored the critics. During high school, she volunteered with the World Food Program, traveling from house to house and conducting nutrition surveys. Later, she worked for Film Aid International, organizing screenings of educational films on topics like HIV and domestic violence. She also worked with the United Nations Refugee Agency, conducting interviews and doing translation work.
Since I was too young to remember fleeing my country, I wouldn’t have an answer when they asked why I left. Then my family would go to the United States, and I’d never see them again. That happens a lot. Families are split apart.
“What motivated me was my dad,” she says. “My dad always said, people will try to bring you down, but he always encouraged us not to give up and supported me and my siblings to have success in life.”
It took an entire decade for her family to complete all of the paperwork and security screenings and this lengthy process makes it difficult for those who grow into adulthood in the refugee camps, as Omar did. For example, young adults who end up marrying and having children in the refugee camp can end up permanently separated from their families. Given this, Omar is extremely glad to have been welcomed into the United States with her parents and siblings, but would like to see the U.S. process for screening more efficient.
“If I had married and had children, I would have had my own case, which could have been rejected,” she says. “Since I was too young to remember fleeing my country, I wouldn’t have an answer when they asked why I left. Then my family would go to the United States, and I’d never see them again. That happens a lot. Families are split apart.”
In her work at the YMCA International, Omar helps new refugees to the United States understand certain realities of living and working in the United States—like the importance of car ownership. “If you’re late for work and you’re taking the bus, you’ll be super-late. So, I encourage them to save money so they can buy a car.”
In addition to basic living expenses such as food and shelter, the refugees that Omar works with must also budget to pay back the cost of the plane ticket that brought them to the United States. “I’m still paying mine,” she notes, $45 each month.
In the face of these challenges and difficulties, Omar is often amazed and thrilled to see her clients adapt so quickly to life in America, recalling a client who came to her dismayed by his inability to speak English. But, he transformed himself through just three months of hard work and ESL classes. “He didn’t miss a single class. So, after only three months, he came to me and said, ‘I can speak English now. I will not need someone to interpret for me.’ That made me really happy,” she says.