Cost of Freedom: Many Refugees Arrive in U.S. in Debt to Government For Their Travel

November 15, 2017 10:54 PM

More than 830 refugees have resettled in Minnesota so far this year – the lowest number this decade. 

But most who do make it here arrive in debt, and must repay the government for their travel as part of a rarely-talked about program funded by the U.S. government since the 1950s.


And 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found fulfilling that promise can often be a struggle.

“When I compare that place and this place, now I have freedom,” said Mohamed Ahmed, an Ethiopian refugee who now lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids. 

“I’m working as much as I can. This is good for me,” he added, hinting at the hope he sees for his family and their new life in America.

Refugee Travel Loans: At a Glance

  • Loans vary in length, but 90 percent have terms of three-to-four years
  • The average loan is $2,740
  • Refugees typically start paying six months after arrival in the U.S.
  • The average loan payment is $84 a month
  • 70 percent of loans are repaid within five years

Source: U.S. State Department

Ahmed works the night shift at Jenny Lind Elementary in Minneapolis. It’s a job he worked hard to get when he arrived here in January of 2016.

He and his family spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

But gaining freedom for his family came with a cost.

The program furnishes interest-free travel loans, handed out by the International Organization for Migration to refugees approved to come to the U.S.

Refugee Loan by KSTPTV on Scribd

The total cost for Ahmed’s family - more than $4,000.

Ahmed has not made a single payment. He said he can’t because he doesn't have the money.

“When I pay everything... nothing is left,” he said, pointing out his monthly budget includes $920 dollars in rent.

Abdirizak Bihi is a community activist who helps East African immigrants understand their new lives and responsibilities.

“It's really a very difficult time when you don't have a home to go to when you arrive," he said. "A job to go to, a training center to go to, and sometimes you don't even know where the resources are."

Even sending things like a loan payment in the mail can be a new concept for many refugees.

“In Somalia, the addresses are landmarks," Bihi said. "Like east of the market, or the color of a house that's well-known. There (are) no street addresses."

The State Department said 70 percent of travel loans are repaid within five years. But no one knows the exact amount paid back.

Both the State Department and the IOM, which oversees the program, would not answer questions about how many loans are provided and how many are defaulted on.

Instead, the agencies provided basic background on the program - including the average loan amount ($2,740) and the average monthly payment ($84). But none of the specific information requested.

The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch sued the State Department this year over its refusal to turn over records showing how many loans are defaulted on.

A spokesperson for Judicial Watch called it “simply implausible” the State Department cannot account for U.S. taxpayer dollars being loaned, which are supposed to be repaid.

Ardo Koshin is paying back her debt. She pays $43 a month to chip away at her $3,000 travel loan.

“Of course it’s a big burden on me, but I have to do my commitment,” she said through a translator. 

Her family arrived in 2015 after spending decades in Dadaab, the world’s second-largest refugee camp in northern Kenya.

She said she and her family are faring well in their new home.

But every situation is different for men and women rebuilding their lives.

Ahmed is making $14 an hour as a janitor. He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he still hopes to one day pay back his cost of freedom.

He just doesn't know when.

“If I have the money than I pay - why not,” he said. “Because the money is helping (people) like me - refugees.”

The IOM said it and other resettlement agencies that help collect these payments do not charge late fees or interest.

The process is very flexible, and agencies work with refugees. They never take legal action against those who don't pay, according to the IOM.


Ryan Raiche

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


Twins open season July 24 at White Sox, feature 7 home games vs. Indians

New rules: Foreign pupils must leave US if classes go online

DPS, Valerie Castile announce traffic stop guideline updates to state's driver's manual

'Pop-up' legal clinic helps businesses damaged after riots, looting

Small business aid went beyond hard-hit companies, data show