Coronavirus Florida: Teen's paycheck supports family as dozens of refugees laid off
While they fight the coronavirus outbreak in their new homes, swarms of locusts infest their former homes in the deserts of East Africa — the worst infestation in two decades.
To Tallahassee’s refugees from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, uncertainty and feelings of helplessness brought on by the coronavirus aren’t so unfamiliar.
In the middle of their refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda, where many fled to escape the horrors in DR Congo, the crop fields where they grew their own vegetables seethed with the grasshoppers during seasonal outbreaks that threatened their food and livelihoods.
But just as their new lives began here in the capital city, the pandemic's upending of the economy has threatened their new livelihoods: About 40 of Tallahassee’s refugees have now lost their jobs or hours significantly cut, says the local International Rescue Committee, the agency that helps refugee families resettle.
“When we explained it to them initially, a lot of their minds went to the locust outbreaks that they experienced,” IRC director Una Bilic said.
Many of them worked childcare jobs; others did housekeeping, maintenance or janitorial work at local hotels.
Rachel Uwamahoro, her five kids and husband resettled in the capital city from a camp in Uganda a few years ago. She quickly landed a job doing janitorial work at FSU's Sodexo dining hall.
“I was happy and excited to work in the U.S. It was my first work here,” Uwamahoro, 32, said about landing the job.
But now she's been laid off. “I feel bad, because you know, now, I’m here with my kids, no work, and I still have to pay my bills. I feel bad because I’m sitting and the bills can’t stop — they’re still coming," she said.
Though IRC has been helping with the job hunt, it's been a struggle amid the competition as many other residents search for new jobs.
“Here, to get a job is difficult, but they’re trying to get it for me,” she said, adding that applying for unemployment has been difficult because of the state's glitch-ridden online process.
Her husband still holds a job at Esposito’s, but now the family relies on the single income to support their five kids.
“I don’t know what I will do," she said
Bilic said the IRC does weekly welfare check-ins with each family, offering tips to save money on bills and explaining updates, such as the upcoming stimulus package, in their native Swahili. IRC staff also pick up kids' homework packets from schools and train parents to use the district's websites to access online portals.
"Our population has been hit really hard," Bilic said. "I’m having a really hard time processing it. I’m really worried about our families. Our clients have worked so hard to attain and maintain those jobs that they had."
A bagger at Publix, 19-year-old Freddy Ntanga Ntambwe's hours have increased. But his dad's hours at the local South Asian grocery store Apna Bazar have been cut in half as the business loses foot traffic. His mom, a caregiver at a daycare, now only goes into work a few times a week.
Amid the drastic loss of income, the family of eight now leans on Freddy to get by.
"With losing half their paycheck, it's really painful 'cause they don’t know how they're going to support the family," said Ntambwe, who's also studying for his GED. "I’m trying my best to support my family."
Freddy's brother Celestine was slated to join his siblings and resettle in Tallahassee last month, until the United States and the International Organization of Migration temporarily suspended refugee resettlement in the wake of the outbreak. Celestine, 21, remains in Lusaka, Zambia, after missing the cut-off by a day.
Freddy's dad Ntambwe Mulaji told the Democrat he was shocked when he found out his food stamps were reduced.
"They reduced the money to $109 per month," 46-year-old Mulaji said in Swahili as his son translated. The local dad said he doesn't "really know how that is going to help."
"Things are really complicated," Freddy said.
Meanwhile, Uwamahoro turns to her faith to cope — just as her people pray amid the food shortages from the locust surge back home.
“I pray to God: 'Oh, God, help coronavirus to go away. Many people are dying from COVID-19,' ” she said.
How to help: Donate to the IRC's emergency fund at bit.ly/IRCCrisisPrevention
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.