Stephanie Caspelich

Reporting the news that matters.

An Alliance to Help the Refugee Community of Chicago

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Students, supporters, volunteers and refugee families gathered in West Rogers Park on a cold spring day to support the fundraising efforts of a mutual aid agency that has provided outreach and development services since 2002.

Pan-African Association was established to assist refugees and immigrants of African descent with their resettlement needs, especially once the 90-day federal assistance from agencies like Refugee One run out,” said Malik Kemokai, volunteer coordinator and event organizer for Power to Empower. “We have since extended our services to refugees from Iraq and Burma through community-building and life-enriching programs. We have also worked together with the Bhutanese Community Association of Illinois on securing funding from the Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Refugee Resettlement, which they started receiving in 2010.”

For the volunteers and employees of the Pan-African Association, a mutual aid agency located at 6163 N. Broadway Ave., the challenges have inspired them to call on their community’s support through the Power to Empower event held Saturday, April 21, at Warren Park.

In 2011, PAA served the needs of over 1200 individual clients. The need is great but funding from federal agencies like HHS and state agencies like the Illinois Department of Human Services has not been enough to support the refugee community. PAA has relied heavily on its 110 volunteers to teach English as a Second Language, assist in work and computer vocational training, mentoring and citizenship and civic education programs, according to Kemokai.

“About 15-20 refugees come for help every month. PAA assists them in applying for welfare benefits like Medicaid and food stamps, signing up for unemployment benefits (and following up every two weeks), accompanying them on hospital visits and providing interpretation services when available,” said Poe Clese, 27, who has been volunteering with PAA since 2011 as an interpreter for the Burmese community.

Clese, a Burmese refugee who came to the United States in July 2007, appreciates the diversity of refugees that benefit from PAA’s services. “Refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are encouraged to share their experiences and culture with one another during a weekly event held every Friday at PAA’s office. It is important that we all get to know one another and find ways for us to help one another in times of need.”

The Power to Empower event is an example of diverse groups of people coming together for a single cause: to assist refugees, asylees and immigrants become more self-sufficient and continue to aid in their successful transition to life in the United States.

According to the Midwest Coalition on Immigration and the Region’s Future (data compiled by Katherine Fennelly and Graduate Students at the University of Minnesota), Illinois has accepted 23,220 refugees from 66 countries since 2000. The majority of the refugees come from Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Burma, the former Soviet Union and Somalia. As with most of the Midwest, the fastest growing refugee groups in the state come from Burma and Bhutan.

“In 2008, the first wave of Bhutanese refugees made their way to the U.S., Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Denmark and Australia,” said Hasta Battarai, 40, program coordinator for BCAI. “There are an estimated 2,000 Bhutanese refugees now living in Chicago. Our agency has helped about 400 individuals with basic job readiness skills, ESL training and services geared toward seniors.”

Bhutan, a small impoverished country bordered by China on the north and India to the south, is a kingdom ruled by a Buddhist monarch of Tibetan origin. The government strictly regulates foreign influences, including tourism, in order to preserve the country’s Buddhist culture, which thrives in the northern and eastern part of the country.

“The southern belt of Bhutan, which is where I am from, consist of Bhutanese of Nepalese and Indian origin,” said Bhattarai. “Therefore, we practice Hinduism and adhere to the Hindu culture.”

In 1988, the government introduced policy that stripped Nepalese and Indians of their citizenship and forced them into exile in an attempt to create a pure Buddhist society. In 1992, more than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese and Indian descent moved to refugee camps in Nepal to escape persecution and death.

Refugees register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and are resettled in the U.S., which has seen a rise refugee resettlement figures since 2000. Chicago historically has acted as the main Midwest resettlement community in the United States, according to MCIRF.

Meena Pradhan, 48, lived in a Nepalese refugee camp for 20 years before being resettled in Chicago in March with her son Bizou and husband Ramjath. They were paired with Refugee One, a resettlement agency that provides 90 days of monetary compensation, a place to live, ESL training and community integration programs.

“Resettlement agencies provide financial support and job assistance for three months after the refugees arrive in Chicago,” said Bhattarai. “Once that runs out, the agencies help refugees acquire public funding alternatives such as food stamps and Medicaid. But for someone like Meena who cannot even speak English, three months is not enough time to adjust and find a job. This is where mutual agencies like PAA and BCAI can help. We try to continue the resettlement agencies work in terms of helping refugees find jobs and provide computer training and ESL classes.”

BCAI was established in 2010 to address the growing needs of the Bhutanese community in Chicago. The idea came to Bhattarai in 2008 as he witnessed older refugees, who spoke very little English, unable to find work because of the language barrier. He wanted to provide services that would help these more senior members of the community become self-sufficient.

“Refugee One introduced me to Hasta, and asked that we mentor him in starting his nonprofit organization,” said A. Patrick Augustin, executive director of PAA. “The Pan-African Association helped BCAI with logistics, building their training and learning programs and, since last year, we have offered them shared office space. PAA understands their need for guidance as we, too, were assisted by Refugee One in the beginning.”

According to Bhattarai, BCAI is still in the learning stages of running their organization. They receive funding from PAA, which in turn gets their funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. All funds are used to enhance the following programs: job counseling and workforce integration workshops, community empowerment and leadership development, and ESL training for children and adults.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights reports the proposed state budget for 2012 provides $7 million for immigrant integration services, a substantial amount considering the looming threat of state budget cuts for refugee services. While PAA receives consistent ORR support funded by the State of Illinois, the needs of growing refugee populations from Burma and Iraq have made it necessary for PAA to reach out to the community for additional support. The Power to Empower event is their first fundraising activity.

“The proceeds of this event will allow PAA to improve and increase the services it can provide to refugee and immigrant communities in Chicago,” said Bhattarai. “The Bhutanese, Burmese and Iraqi communities will benefit from this by way of the services offered to us by PAA.”

According to Kemokai, government policy and funding can only do so much. To depend on its limitations would mean having to turn away refugees and immigrants at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

“The community has shown its willingness to be involved in helping refugees and immigrants achieve self-sufficiency,” said Augustin. “At the end of the day, we know we can depend on the support of one another, especially for those who do not have much.”

The day started at 9 a.m. with volunteers, supporters, students from DePaul University, Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago participating in a walk/run around the park. Several refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Burma and Bhutan were present to enjoy the festivities.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Ethiopian Diamond restaurant owner Yigizaw Almaz took to the stage to share their words of encouragement and support for the refugee community supported by the PAA and BCAI. Musicians from the DRC, Tanzania and Jamaica performed songs from their homeland and entertained the crowd with drum playing on their djembes. The BCAI Cultural Group, composed of teenage boys and girls in traditional garb, performed classical dance numbers to Hindi songs.

The day ended at 2 p.m. with the thumping rhythm of drum beats and the laughter of children frolicking in the grass.

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