Local News

Reaching out: GCCC provides services, tracks refugees

Efforts are brewing at Garden City Community College to augment refugee services available in the area and quantify some of the region's newest families.

Date: 7/9/2009

Posted by Kansas Appleseed on 7/9/2009

Published 6/25/2009 in Local News

By SHAJIA AHMAD   sahmad@gctelegram.com



The GCCC Adult Learning Center, housed in the basement of the Student and Community Services Building, is developing refugee services and serving about 300 individuals as of this month, said Velia Mendoza, the center's new refugee coordinator.

It is the first effort to track the numbers of resettling newcomers in this region of Kansas and provide a central point of contact for refugees, according to GCCC and Social and Rehabilitation Services officials.

Mendoza, who began working at the center as an ESL instructor two years ago, took on the refugee coordinating position at the beginning of this year. She said staff have come to know many of the refugees already served through their classes that needed assistance beyond classroom instruction. Staff said several issues continually crop up, including concerns about personal hygiene, proper nutrition, social and cultural misunderstandings and transportation concerns.

"For example, we ran across a problem where many of the families didn't understand what a Dillons card was or how to use one," the coordinator said. "It's basic things like that, that come up, that they want to learn and that we're here to teach."

Verna Weber, an assistant director of the western Kansas region of SRS, said the program at the college is the first of its kind in the area to track and identify refugees who have moved to Kansas, many from other states; unless refugees apply for federal cash assistance, they are virtually unknown to her department, Weber said.

"The college's role is above and beyond our offices because they are actually helping these people become acculturated into the community," she said. "Because the college also serves as a central point of contact for all refugees in the community, we can track where people are living, which is ultimately tied to how much federal funding the state could receive."

The college's refugee services have been made possible through a partial SRS grant nearing $90,000 and awarded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grant provides support for a refugee coordinator, two part-time case managers and a plethora of services including transportation, driver's education, employment and housing assistance, child care, mentoring, legal issues and translation services, provided at no cost.

Dwa Tho is one of two part-time refugee case managers, himself a former Burmese refugee living in a camp in Thailand for five years before moving to the states.

He works intimately with many Burmese families, driving them to clinics and banks and providing translation services when accompanying them, he said.

Tho, who began working at the center last fall, said one of the most serious barriers to assimilation are the language barriers and culture shock.

"I have friends who wish to make money, but they need to work on their education simultaneously," he said. "The families have come to gain a better life for their children, but they are also facing many struggles."

The majority of the center's clientele include Somalian and Burmese refugees but many are also refugees of Cuban, Vietnamese and Laotian nationality, Mendoza said. The majority of Somalian refugees have come from Emporia, where they worked for Tyson Fresh Meats before the company closed its slaughter operations in January 2008, eliminating about 1,500 jobs.

The grant that funds the learning center's services will expire in September, staff said, but they are certain that further grant money will allow them to continue their work.

"One of the most difficult things we have to teach (our clients) is that there is a process to things and that things take time," Mendoza said. "But what we teach them, they teach each other, which is empowering for them, too."