The man from Iran seemed deeply disturbed.
He walked the halls of Vive La Casa in the middle of the night and talked to himself for hours on end, said Angela Jordan-Mosely, the executive director of the refugee shelter on the East Side of Buffalo.
He liked Jordan-Mosely so he was nice to her. But to other staff members, especially those who were white, he acted aggressively.
Recognizing that the man appeared to have serious mental health problems, Vive tried to get him help at local hospitals. It took until the third trip to an emergency room when he was finally admitted and held for six days. He was released with a two-week supply of psychiatric drugs that seemed to help him. He also had a prescription for a refill. It would cost $1,800 for another two-week supply.
“We can’t do that,” Jordan-Mosely said of the high cost.
As Vive workers prepare for the shelter’s annual Freedom Bowl fundraiser today, Jordan-Mosely explained one of the many challenges her organization faces as the mission of the refugee shelter has shifted.
When Vive was founded in 1984, its mission was to help refugees seeking asylum in Canada.
Over the last few years, as immigration laws have tightened in Canada, more and more of the people who come to Vive end up pursuing legal status in the United States – a process that can take two to three years. Currently, about 45 percent of the shelter’s clients are trying to get legal refugee status here.
With many clients staying for extended periods at Vive’s dorm-like facilities, the shelter’s case workers try to figure out how to pay for prescriptions for mental health issues and chronic conditions. Most often, they can’t.
Unlike refugees who come to the Buffalo area through organizations such as Catholic Charities and Journey’s End and have already been granted legal status to resettle in the United States, Vive’s clients come here through whatever means they can to seek asylum in this country or Canada.
“They may have gotten here illegally,” Jordan-Mosely said.
And some may have come here on a student visa that expired. But the moment they walk into Vive, the shelter begins the process to get them legal status.
“Everybody here is known by the government. ... We do not harbor anyone here illegally,” Jordan-Mosely said.
But because the clients don’t have legal status yet, they are not eligible for Medicaid or other government aid, explained Peter Murrett, one of Vive’s attorneys.
“The way it works is, when you come to the U.S. to make a refugee claim, there are no benefits or very limited benefits available,” he said.
Vive helps 4,000 people every year, Jordan-Mosely explained. About 80 percent of the clients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, not surprising considering the conditions they fled in their home countries.
“They were watching their families be killed in front of them. They are mothers who watched their children die in front of them. ... Women who were gang raped. These are people in situations where they’re forced to marry the Taliban. If you could see these women’s bodies, the scarring,” she said.
Vive can’t afford the expensive medications some of their clients need while they’re waiting for legal status.
The county’s hands are tied when it comes to helping, said Frank DeCarlo, assistant commissioner of the Erie County Department of Social Services.
“Undocumented refugees are not eligible for the program,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do to get around that federal regulation. ... It really does seem to be a gap.”
Jordan-Mosely hopes to find a solution, either through a grant from a private foundation or changes to immigration law to cover prescription costs for asylum seekers.
Hospitals do provide some medication through in-house charities to help indigent patients, but those funds are limited and generally only cover just a few weeks.
In the case of the Iranian man, he had come to Vive after posting bond to get out of the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia.
Vive’s social workers reached out to pharmaceutical companies and local drugstores, hoping to get the cost of his medication waived. But no one could help.
When he ran out of his meds, Vive tried to get him to go back to the hospital, but he checked himself out. A staff worker found him walking in the middle of a city street.
Jordan-Mosely made the decision to ask immigration agents to take him back to Batavia. As a prisoner, he would be entitled to the medication he needed.
Immigrations agents came and took him away.
“That was the first time I cried at Vive,” Jordan-Mosely said. “I had to close my door and sob because I felt like the system did him a disservice.”
The situation is not isolated, Jordan-Mosely said.
One client ended up having to go to the emergency room of a local hospital every day to get his insulin. There was no other way to pay for it.
Another woman got her medication after trying to throw herself in front of a bus only because she had children – one born in the United States – and the Erie County Child Protective Services was called in to make sure they were safe.
Vive needs the financial help, she said, “to better prepare them to be productive in Western New York because eventually, they will become citizens, and they are going to settle right here in Western New York.”
The Freedom Bowl will be held noon to 3 p.m. today at Vive La Casa, 50 Wyoming Avenue. Donations of $40 per adult or $20 per student are requested. Children under 5 are free. Participants can select a bowl handcrafted by Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann communities in Williamsville and students from St. Mary Swormville Elementary School. The bowls will be filled with international foods prepared by residents of the shelter.