This August marks the 80th Anniversary of President Roosevelt’s signing the Social Security Act into law. Social Security has become a part of the fabric of American society - but to newly arrived refugees the program has a special significance.

Many refugees are “stateless” people, meaning that they are not citizens of any country.  Without status or rights in any country, many refugees who come from Bhutan through Nepal, have been forbidden from working. The prohibition is part of the larger exclusion from normal society that refugees endure. For some us that may sound like a nice long vacation, “but when you’re not allowed to work for years and you have that taken away, it is wonderful to suddenly have someone say, ‘No, you’re allowed to do that here. We think that you have something to contribute,’” Alison Bell, World Relief Senior Resettlement Manager explains. “I think there’s a lot of significance in this little card. This little number in its own way says, ‘you belong here and you’re wanted and you’re one of us.’”

This card is so important that applying for it is one of the first tasks newly arriving refugees complete, with the help of WRDA staff or volunteers.  Their Social Security card is one of the first official U.S. documents many of them receive.  It is this document that refugees often use to prove their eligibility to work in the United States and within the first 2-3 months after arrival many World Relief clients find jobs with the help of WRDA’s employment services team.

Those first jobs allow clients to not only support themselves but provide a source of dignity and pride that many refugees had lost.  Work is something that helps their own family and refugees immediately begin to contribute into the Social Security system that pays out benefits to retired pensioners, the unemployed, survivors of deceased workers, and the disabled. An article in the New York Times quotes a Social Security Administration official as saying that immigrants pay well over $15 billion annually into the Social Security system.  At some future time or at retirement, refugee workers may be able to draw on those benefits, but more immediately, being part of the system and the workforce is part of belonging to the larger community. 

Many refugees lost a sense of belonging through spent years in refugee camps or urban settings after being forced to flee their home country.  Now in the United States and desiring to put down new roots, there is great power in a little 2”x3.5” paper card.  With it, Bell adds, “we’re in a position where we can say, ‘Every American has this number. You’re here, you belong, here’s your number. You’re part of us. You get to work too.’”