Making a home
Posted by Garden City Telegram/La Semana on 7/19/2010
Garden City Telegram, The (KS)
July 10, 2010
Section: Local News
Groups help refugees assimilate into culture
Editor's note: This is the final story in a series about the area's refugee populations and the resettlement resources available to them.
The first story in the series explored the integration efforts of the local Somali community, and last Saturday's story detailed the struggles of local Burmese families and the endeavors of the Coalition of Ethnic Minority Leaders, spearheaded by a chaplain at Finney County's Tyson Fresh Meats plant.
Today's story focuses on the challenges facing social service organizations and other agencies in assisting a growing population of secondary refugees in southwest Kansas.
Law Poe keeps his Social Security card crisp and clean inside a small plastic pouch with a few other folded-up documents.
The 19-year-old Burmese man, fitting right in with his Airwalk shoes, skinny jeans, and black sweatshirt, moved to Garden City a month ago, straight from a Myanmar-Thailand border camp where he spent 16 years.
Poe's identification card is so new he hadn't yet signed it before handing it over at the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, where he applied for food stamps this week, public assistance he hopes will help him get on his feet, he said through the aid of a translator.
The young man speaks no English. The complex paperwork is filled out with the help of a refugee case manager from Garden City Community College who brought him to the SRS office, translated for Poe, and provided transportation back to the new resident's small apartment where he now lives with his brother.
Despite the language barriers, Poe said he has dreams: He wants to go school and get a good education now that he's made it to America.
When GCCC's Adult Learning Center first began providing services to a growing number of refugees in southwest Kansas at the start of last year, the program in its infant stages was servicing a few hundred each month who sought assistance filling out job applications, visiting doctor's offices, or help with child care or legal issues.
In just more than a year, that number has doubled: Between 500 and 600 refugees in Garden City now seek help every month at the small office located in the basement of the Student and Community Services Building, according to the refugee program's coordinator, Velia Mendoza.
"When we first started, we were knocking on doors to find (refugees) in our community," Mendoza said. "Now they're coming to us. They know our names, and they say so-and-so told me you could help me find a job or an apartment."
The services also began in an effort to track the growing numbers of resettling refugees in the region, but unlike Poe, who is a primary refugee and can call Garden City his first American home, most of the others are secondary refugees, Mendoza said.
They move to southwest Kansas from other states, typically to find work at the four beef-packing plants that lie within a 70-mile radius.
Today, local officials and community leaders estimate several hundred Burmese families live in the area along with several hundred Somali refugees, and trying to enumerate and help them integrate has become a brewing challenge.
The refugee program run through the community college's office provides a central point of contact for refugees and was made possible through grants awarded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grants provide support for a refugee coordinator, a full-time Somali case manager and part-time Burmese case manager in the local office.
But with funding that amounts to "pennies on the dollar," the heavy task of providing as many services as needed is daunting, according to Mohamed Abdurahman, a regional refugee coordinator with the Kansas SRS Department. Abdurahman said Kansas misses out on federal funding opportunities afforded to other states because the resettlers are deemed secondary refugees.
"But many of them coming are as new as if they came here first, and we must treat them as primary (refugees)," Abdurahman said. "Some of their children have never even had a physical or been to the doctor's office."
Mendoza, who says the burden for the need of services in the area is growing, agreed.
"One day we're doctors. Another day we're teachers, and we're counselors," Mendoza said. "We're not getting the funding, but we are getting the work."
Once each week, Mendoza or one of her caseworkers also will travel an hour east to set up shop in a small computer lab at Dodge City Community College's Adult Learning Center, where housing needs in the southwest Kansas town that is similar in size to Garden City trump all other assistance the refugees seek, case workers said.
On the same Dodge City trip, Mendoza will pick up job applications at the employment offices of Cargill and National Beef's meat-packing plants and continuously communicate with the plant's officials about new job opportunities.
Mendoza admitted she knows how tough the work is for her clients, but language barriers hinder her from looking elsewhere. She, herself, spent several years working at the beef-packing plants in Garden City before becoming an ESL teacher at the community college, she said.
The SRS grant that fuels the refugee program is up for renewal this fall, and Mendoza said her agency is hoping to get more funds, though the odds of receiving them are unknown.
"What we do know is with the amount of refugees and the staff available, it's just not covering it," she said.
During Thursday's trip to the SRS office, Dwa Tho, a part-time Burmese refugee case manager at GCCC, said his goal is to see the individuals he helps become independent and self-sufficient -- easier said than done, he admitted.
Since the refugee program's commencement, Tho, himself once a refugee at a Thailand camp more than five years ago, said new families are moving to Garden City every week and are hungry for information. The answers they seek include: How does the banking system work? How do I get food stamps? How can I learn to drive?
Some of the complex paperwork to apply for public assistance is difficult enough for English-speaking families and even more difficult for non-English speakers, Tho said.
The availability of social services comes and goes with the cycles of incoming refugees, and churches fill in some gaps in the community, but the resources in the area always have been limited, according to Levita Rohlmann, director of the local Catholic Agency for Migration and Refugee Services.
The voluntary, faith-based group with two staff members including herself has served as the primary resettlement agency in a sparsely populated southwest quarter of the state.
Rohlman oversaw the resettlement of thousands of Vietnamese and other southeast Asian families through the mid-1980s, the height of refugee resettlement in the region.
Today, there are fewer primary refugees like Poe, but the availability of work at the region's meat-packing plants continues to bring newcomers to the region, she said.
Inside the Catholic agency's office on North Taylor Avenue, families large and small trickle in every few minutes with paperwork: Refugees resettling in the United States must wait one year before they can apply for permanent residency and only then can apply for American citizenship, a process that can take several years, Rohlmann said.
There are no translators in the tiny office, save for her assistant, who speak Spanish. Most families know to bring their own interpreters, Rohlmann said, and if they don't, she asks them to come back with one.
"I could always use more help," Rohlmann said. "But there isn't always help available, so we do the best we can."
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