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Financial Inclusion & Asset Building for Refugees in the US

Creating opportunities for resettled refugees to have economic stability and mobility through financial coaching and credit building loans.

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What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

In the past 5 years over 300,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States, many of them through support of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). While refugee resettlement in the US provides initial survival supports upon arrival, it lacks long-term integration services to allow refugees to thrive in their new communities. While employment is an important component of self-sufficiency, it is inadequate as the only input. The median net worth of native-born Americans is $86,460, while the median net worth of foreign-born non-citizens is only $9,530. Financial exclusion causes and perpetuates this cycle of wealth disparity. Refugees arrive in the US as “credit invisible” because they have no credit history or credit score in the US. Lack of credit history limits access to financial services and products and creates additional barriers to building wealth and assets. Resettled refugees start their US-based lives in debt because they are obligated to repay a loan from the IOM for their flights. While refugee median incomes increase over time in the US, it remains $3,000 lower than other immigrants and $8,000 lower than native-born. Overcoming these barriers to economic stability and mobility is essential for refugees to be able to fully participate and contribute to their new communities. There is an opportunity to bring asset building into refugee resettlement as a holistic framework. LIRS is working to build financial literacy, coaching and access to financial products into refugee resettlement offices. To achieve economic security and build assets, refugees need knowledge, skills and access to enroll and navigate systems within the US context. This understanding must be then translated into skills that refugees can use to engage and participate in the economy and financial institutions. In addition, refugees need affordable and accessible (linguistically & culturally) financial products and services such as credit-building loans.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

LIRS has refugee resettlement affiliate offices in 30 cities across the United States. The pilot would select four affiliate locations. The sites will be selected based on a landscape analysis to determine refugee communities with the most need for financial inclusion and asset building. As the first face of welcome refugees encounter in the US, local resettlement agencies have an opportunity to leverage established trust with refugee clients as a foundation for trust in financial institutions.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

A community will thrive if all its members, have equitable opportunities. Creating opportunities for refugees to move beyond day to day financial survival, opens up the physical and mental capacity for them to engage more deeply with their neighbors and communities. Refugees desire to build social connections and community, but the time to engage with these activities is often inhibited by the urgent need to earn basic income and an inability to invest in economic assets.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Refugees have hopes far beyond surviving. Dreams of buying a car, owning a home, enrolling their children in higher education, and starting a business should not be limited because of being a newcomer or an exclusive financial system. Having the knowledge, skills and access to achieve their dreams restores hope and dignity. All humans should have equitable opportunity to maximize their resources and choose to use them in ways that bring them joy. There is dignity to feeling capable and included in the US financial system; gaining the knowledge and skills to grow assets gives hope for a life beyond day to day survival. After years, potentially decades, of being dependent on NGO assistance, being financially capable provides a dignified and empowered path to autonomy. Furthermore, LIRS takes a client-centered and strengths-based approach that affirms clients’ strengths related to resource cultivation and management and celebrates the client’s own vision for their future.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

With the BridgeBuilder grant, LIRS will pilot financial coaching and access to credit building loans for refugees in at least four cities across the US. Through these pilots, LIRS aims to improve refugee access to opportunities that promote financial stability and long-term mobility. This includes achieving the following outcomes: • Refugees access credit building services and demonstrate improved credit scores • Refugees have increased confidence and improved self-perceived financial capabilities • Increase in household net worth of refugee families • Refugees invest in assets (cars, homes, etc.) • Increase number of refugees accessing mainstream financial products & services This will also lay an important foundation for future programming to promote refugee entrepreneurship and small business loans.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

LIRS believes that refugees are experts in their own resettlement and our program ideas are rooted in their expressions of need. In April 2019, LIRS gathered thought partners from across the US to explore how to improve refugee asset building and opportunities that promote long-term economic stability and mobility. The two-day LIRS Integration Conversation included representatives from the refugee community, refugee resettlement agencies, financial institutions, foundations, and research and technical assistance organizations. This idea and approach was born out of the Integration Conversation. LIRS celebrates the talents, resilience and creativity newcomers bring to the US, but we know that we must also create the conditions and opportunities for refugees to use and share those attributes. Without adequate training and equitable access, refugees are barred from achieving their full potential.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

In advance of this proposal LIRS hosted an Integration Conversation to understand the challenges facing refugee communities around asset building. Participants completed journey maps to illustrate how a program is experienced from the perspective of a refugee client. This process identified some characteristics of refugees and receiving communities where we intend to work. Refugees resettled in the US: • Enter at an inequitable starting line for building wealth and assets. • War or corruption may have instilled distrust and lack of confidence in financial institutions. • Do not know how to navigate US financial systems Receiving communities, financial institutions and community organizations: • Ill-equipped to serve the diversity of refugee languages • Lack cultural awareness (ie not responsive to Muslim clients needing interest-free loans) • Have a history of systemic racism to prevent persons of color from accumulating wealth. • See refugees as targets for predatory loans

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

The LIRS programs will be culturally responsive to the needs of the clients. Programs will be reciprocal, drawing on the strengths of both the refugee client’s culture and the American financial system. Programs will facilitate individualized navigation and ask questions to better understand the cultural context that a refugee is coming from. This may reveal cultural norms that could help or hinder a client’s ability to build assets in the US. Explaining how these norms play out in the US and collaboratively brainstorming between the client and financial coach on how both the system and the individual can adapt for success. A whole-family or community wealth approach is critical to the LIRS approach. This means including the entire family in the decision making and developing a shared household goal related to asset building will help to promote long term economic security, mobility, and inter-generational wealth.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

Engaging a diversity of stakeholders and partners in refugee asset building expands the possibilities of financial inclusion for refugees; successful asset building is part of the economic ecosystem. This work requires a balance of harnessing the trust and relationships refugee agencies already have with refugee clients and utilizing existing community and workplace mechanisms for financial inclusion. LIRS is in conversation with organizations ready and willing to partner with LIRS to provide the financial products and services identified as most needed by refugees in a given community but financial support is needed. ProsperityNow can provide capacity building and technical assistance and the Center for Economic Opportunity can offer credit building loans. Working with these partners in conjunction with our local affiliate offices will create braided services within a refugee agency to combine financial capabilities and coaching with an accessible financial product.

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototype: We have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Group or Organization Name

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

Founded in 1939, LIRS has since grown into an internationally recognized leader known for innovative services for refugees, asylum-seekers, unaccompanied immigrant children and families, and migrants impacted by immigration detention. LIRS has resettled over 500,000 refugees and migrants while investing in innovative approaches and programs that support the self-sufficiency, welcome and empowerment. LIRS has been welcoming the stranger for the past 80 years through refugee resettlement. Expanding in the area of asset building and financial inclusion demonstrates LIRS’ commitment to the long welcome. LIRS is well positioned to tackle this challenge because of our strong partnerships with both localized affiliate offices and national experts in asset building. From the beginning this idea has been rooted in conversation with these partners and refugee communities.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a registered Non-Profit Organization

Organization Headquarters: Country

United States of America

Organization Headquarters: City / State

Baltimore, MD


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