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Navigating DC’s Department of Human Services: My Experience as a Refugee

Last Thursday, the DC Council held an oversight hearing for the Department of Human Services (DHS), which provides low-income District residents with public benefits such as TANF, SNAP, and Medicaid/Alliance health insurance.

These hearings are an opportunity for community members to raise concerns about DC agencies. Below is an excerpt of written testimony from a Bread for the City client:

My name is Zahraa Alnajjar. I am mother to two children and wife to my husband. We are a Syrian family. Our story began when the war broke out in Syria and there was no way to return to the homeland. Everything there was gone.

My family applied for asylum in January 2013, and our waiting began. We did not have authorization to work, and the little money we had ran out. There was no way to get aid. We were lucky we could take our children to doctors at Bread for the City. They helped us apply for health insurance. My husband and I enrolled in Alliance, and my children received Medicaid.

My husband and I had to interview every 6 months in the human service center (H Street) to renew our Alliance. We always waited for hours. There was nowhere to sit.

Our cases stayed unchanged for two years and a half. I told the lady at the Service Center that our asylum would be granted in a month and she said: “I can’t do anything until you have documentation. When you get it you can get food stamps, TANF, and Medicaid”.

The day came and we got a letter indicating we were all granted asylum. We were happy because we knew with asylum came rights and hopefully we could work soon. I ran directly to the human services center … I dreamed that once I give them the papers we will get help, I will kill the poverty we had been living in, and forget the suffering and cruel nights that passed us by nearly 3  years in America…

After 4 hours, a lady rudely said: “Why you are here? You already renewed your Alliance!” I told her what her colleague said last time, and she interrupted: “This center is to assist American citizens not asylees. You have to go to the refugee center.”

At the refugee center, he said very coldly: “What do you want?? You already have health insurance” He talked to the assistant director. “Go back to H Street, they will switch your health insurance to Medicaid.”

Frustrated, I met with the health insurance worker at Bread: “I am so sorry for that. Go to the human services center, and I’ll explain to them.” She called them. They did not answer. She left a message.

I went back and waited as usual for three hours. The man who told me to go to the refugee center was surprised when he saw me: “Why you are back here?” He did not listen to the message from Bread. After a long discussion with his supervisor: “The refugee center was supposed to help you, but they refuse. My manager will call them.”

I felt at that time I’m like a ball they exchange among themselves in the time-out of a boring game.

I began the application and gave them all the papers they asked for. Then I got the rejection as if nothing happened, as if we did not get asylum.

On October 30th, I received a letter again to renew our Alliance…

I had completely given up. I did not want Alliance. The medicine we need is not covered by Alliance … Every day was worse than the previous! The problems with getting insurance negatively affected our health so much!

I told Bread I gave up and then talked to a lawyer. She went with me to Human Services. I felt I had power for the first time. I felt strong. It was still a long wait but finally we spoke to someone and months later I have Medicaid.

The name of the agency is Human Services. “Human.”  I always want to find the humanity. I don’t see that there. I suffered a lot. I felt like I was still in the third world. I want to help improve that. Because I love the USA.

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