Shaloo Jose came to America in January 2005 after her husband decided to take a job overseas. She has since visited other big cities in the United States, but her and her family consider Philadelphia to be “home.”
After starting at HIAS as an ordinary volunteer, Jose quickly fell in love with the family-like atmosphere of the workplace. She has been in her new position as the asylee outreach program director since last year and admits she is still learning the ropes. But she loves it.
Did your experience of coming over to the United States inspire you to work with the immigrant community?
Telling you the truth, no. I just wanted to be somewhere. When I resigned my job in India I was like, “I will not be working any more,” because I was tired. I was almost working 12 to 13 hours a day and I was exhausted. Like, this is it. I’m not ever going to work ever in my life. I came to the U.S. in January and of course the first few weeks were exciting. It was snowing and I was like, oh, this is nice. And then I started getting bored. That’s when I was like, this is not good, I need to look for something. Somebody suggested, “Why don’t you start volunteering at a library or something?” I was ready to do anything at that point. My husband suggested, you’ve been to law school, put that to use somewhere. That’s how someone suggested HIAS because they do immigration law.
Can you talk about your title as director of the Asylee Outreach Project?
The Asylee Outreach program is focused more on helping asylees after they get their asylum grant. So you have the refugee resettlement team that helps refugees once they arrive here in the country. This program was created to help asylees after they’ve been granted asylum. Once they’ve been granted asylum, they’ll come here.
We do an intake and try to assess what their needs are. Of course, they need social security cards. If their income is low, we try to get them started with benefits — they are entitled to receive benefits — so we do that. We also sign them up for a matching grant program which is our employment program that helps clients with employment search — prepare them for employment. And their medical needs, if they have any, because while their asylum was pending they don’t get some benefits. After a certain time they do get a work permit card. But again, they’re not entitled to all the benefits. After receiving the grant, they are able to start off their life.
Some clients have been waiting for a long time. Some of them have been in detention for a long time. So they come to us with nothing, just like a backpack and that’s it. We help them with that. If they have any family members, we help them. They’re entitled to apply for certain family members. We do social work combined with legal work. And then a year later, help them with green card applications. Once that’s done, we will let them know that five years from now you should be ready for citizenship. Just guiding them along the way, helping them with their needs and trying to address their issues. My goal, and the program’s goal, is to get the clients to a point when they are self-sufficient.
It seems like you do a lot of attorney work without having to go in front of the actual judge. Is that about right?
Yes. So, I’m partially accredited. The partial accreditation means that the Department of Justice allows a person like me to go before immigration here to represent my clients. I’m partially accredited so I’m not able to go to the court, but I am able to go to immigration offices and represent my clients. I can do that. I am working toward fully accredited. Hopefully I should get that soon. But the clients that I mostly deal with are usually scheduled at the local office and I can represent them there.
Is your work becoming more difficult as immigration reform veers toward the conservative side?
Yes. There is this uncertainty. My clients call and ask, “What’s going to happen?” I don’t know. All I can assure my clients is just hang in and let’s hope things will change. I don’t want to create fear in them. I tell my clients to stay calm, don’t worry, you’re OK, you have lawful status, you don’t have to worry about anything. “But so-and-so said this and so-and-so said that, I don’t have a green card.”
Whatever we can do from our part, we will do and just hope for the best to happen. I just try to calm them down because sometimes even you don’t know what answer to give them. So just give them hope. Hope is the best medicine I say.
Why is Philadelphia a prime location for doing refugee and asylee work?
Good question. I think the city is very diverse. People come from different backgrounds. For example, for me, I came in as an immigrant. I was not sure where I was but the city welcomed me. I felt everybody here has a story. Most of them were immigrants, right? And I could relate to them.
Because there is a lot of diversity in the city, I think that’s what attracts a lot of people. Opportunities are growing and more people feel safe in the city. I think that’s the main attraction for people to come in, for refugees and asylees especially, because they are coming to something which is an unknown. For refugees, the United States of America is just a word that they hear. They don’t know what they are coming to. But when they come to Philadelphia, if we are there to welcome them and they feel comfortable, they stay.
When we have these groups of refugees come in, they build up the city, that area, and it becomes better. They are all hardworking people and they are putting toward the betterment of the community. And then that attracts more people to come. Most of the people come in because they know there is an existing community here. I think that’s the reason.
-Text and photos by George Means.