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Refugee arrivals fall around Tampa Bay, as does the federal money to help them

TAMPA — Ameeneh Ali Yaqoob traveled roughly 6,200 miles around the world to escape her abusive, violent brothers in Jordan.

They were Muslim fundamentalists and she was a feminist who wanted to empower women in the Middle East. They beat her for speaking out and she thought of killing herself to escape the torment.

"I felt, 'No, I can't stay any longer,' " Yaqoob, 37, told the Tampa Bay Times.

She wanted to start a new life in the U.S. She secretly saved up money and bought a plane ticket. On Nov. 9, 2018, Yaqoob walked into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with a soon-to-expire visa. By April she had moved to Tampa to live with a friend. In May she was granted asylum.

"It was the happiest day for me," Yaqoob said. She was finally free of her brothers.

While heartening, stories like Yaqoob's are becoming increasingly rare around Tampa Bay. Officials say the number of refugees, asylees or other new arrivals eligible for federal services in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties has dropped this year to a decade low.

According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, 664 new arrivals entered Hillsborough County in fiscal year 2018 or became eligible for services there. That's a roughly 75 percent decline from fiscal year 2017.

Only 211 new arrivals entered Pinellas County or became eligible for services there. That's a falloff of about 52 percent. Those are the lowest figures for both counties since at least 2009.

And as fewer refugees resettle here, there's less federal money for local organizations that help displaced people like Yaqoob find housing, get a job or learn English.

Mike Carroll, executive vice president of programs at Lutheran Services Florida, a nonprofit that resettles refugees in Tampa Bay, said the federal funding outlook for 2020 is particularly grim.

"We're anticipating a 20 percent (funding) cut going into next year, based on the ongoing numbers," said Carroll, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

As of now, only about 8,000 refugees have entered Florida this year, Carroll said. That's a big drop-off, he said, in comparison to 2015 or 2016.

President Barack Obama's 2017 repeal of the U.S. "wet foot, dry foot" Cuba policy has contributed to the downturn in refugees across the state, Carroll said. Nationally, President Donald Trump has also significantly cut back on the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S.

In fiscal year 2019, federal funding for the refugee program at Lutheran Services Florida dropped to just under $8 million. It was about $10 million in fiscal year 2018.

It's a new financial reality, Carroll said, that requires reduced staff and cost-saving changes like giving refugees vouchers to attend adult education classes instead of subcontracting those classes out to school districts.

"The (refugee) program can't stay the same," Carroll said. Agencies across the country are facing similar challenges, he said.

In St. Petersburg, Catholic Charities has completely shut down its resettlement program for refugees entering the Tampa Bay area.

The charity had its federal funding slashed this past year as the government worked to consolidate how many organizations provide refugee services locally.

Lou Ricardo, director of marketing and donor relations, said the cut wasn't surprising. Catholic Charities only served 171 refugees in Tampa Bay from July 2017 to June 2018. The nonprofit has likely served less than 50 refugees since.

"The new administration came in and made no bones about it," said Ricardo, referencing Trump's vocal opposition to refugee resettlement. "It was always a possibility."

Ricardo said a Catholic Charities employee is still available to answer questions from refugees already living in the U.S. That's not a government-funded program, though.

Yaqoob is just thankful to be in Tampa. It's a bit hot, she said, but it's already much better than Jordan. She can live a free life. There's more opportunity here as a feminist, Yaqoob said.

While in the Middle East, Yaqoob worked for a nonprofit that assisted refugees entering Jordan from places like war-torn Syria. Now she may consider volunteering for a refugee group in the U.S. After that, she wants to get a job.

"I will forget all the violence," Yaqood said.

Contact Sam Ogozalek at or (813) 226-3430. Follow @SamOgozalek.