Rawaa Nancy Albilal, president and chief executive of the Support Center, said that travel loans put refugee families under incommensurable stress. She questions whether resettlement agencies should be taking a commission on repayments, as the practice, she said, “defeats the purpose of their mission.”
Eskinder Negash, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the agency assigned to collect payments from both Ms. Safieh and the Majeeds, argues that the fee is fair; if the State Department requires refugees to pay back their loans, his nonprofit should be allowed to recoup its costs, which include paying three full-time employees who coordinate the repayments.
“The question is whether we should charge refugees for their transportation to begin with,” Mr. Negash said.
According to a spokeswoman for the State Department, which, it must be said, takes a loss in the travel loan transactions, having refugees pay for their travel expenses helps defray resettlement costs and can strengthen the newcomers’ resolve for a successful migration.
The department maintains that the loans are designed to encourage repayments without placing undue hardship on refugees, as interest-free deferments and reduced monthly payments are easily granted to struggling debtors. In the process, newcomers are given an opportunity to become financially literate and build up their credit history.
The opposite is also true, however, as missed payments can affect credit scores.
To date, slightly over 18 percent of all the loans issued to refugees in 2016 did not receive a single payment, according to data from the State Department. These missed payments were reported to credit agencies. For a while, Ms. Safieh, who ultimately found a part-time job as an Arabic teacher, was nearly $800 behind on loan payments. She still needs to repay over $3,500.
“When you don’t have much, it’s hard to pay for anything,” Ms. Safieh said. “Frankly, I don’t know what to do.”