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Refugee youth services threatened

As families prepare for a new school year, some of the most vulnerable kids and parents may have to go it alone. Refugee assistance programs in Illinois are set to lose a federal grant that helps K-12 students transition to life in the U.S., and that supports critical resources for teachers and refugee parents.

“This program will pretty much shut down as of August 14 of 2014,” said Melineh Kano, Executive Director of RefugeeONE, a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. The organizations youth program provides after-school tutoring and social gatherings for roughly 250 refugee children every weekday during the school year, as well as weekend, in-home tutoring for refugee children who often come to the U.S. with little to no English skill, and often below grade level.

Additionally, the program’s case workers are critical to enrolling children in schools when families first arrive, as many refugee parents are unable to fill out the paperwork themselves, and rarely understand what type of documentation they are required to bring to register their children.

“Many of the parents that we are serving haven’t really had the opportunity to deal with any formal school systems,” explained Kano. “So they depend on us to help them and orient them.”

But this year, Kano and those who work with other refugee assistance programs in Illinois, are fretting over whether they’ll have money to continue supporting kids and their families through the school year. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement largely funds refugee services, and has recently warned assistance organizations that money is getting tight — because it also is responsible for the care and shelter of unaccompanied children who are caught illegally migrating to the U.S. The number of children detained since June of 2013 has surged, prompting the ORR to divert money that was earmarked for refugees to deal with the situation.

Since WBEZ last reported on this, ORR has announced that it will restore funding to some core services. However, discretionary grants that pay for K-12 support, senior services and preventative health programs remain in jeopardy. In Illinois, youth services received $711,729 last fiscal year.

Kano said ORR money makes up about 80 percent of the budget for RefugeeONE’s youth program. If that money is not renewed, she said she’ll be left with less than one full-time employee to handle K-12 services. She said that means newly-arrived refugee families wouldn’t receive the basic education that her organization promotes.

“Something as simple as you have to dress your kids properly for school and you have to feed them breakfast before they go to school,” she said, “because otherwise the teacher is going to notice that your child is not well taken care of, and they might call the Department of Child and Family Services for neglect.”

Kano said extreme examples like that are rare, but they could happen more often without the support and intervention of RefugeeONE’s case workers. More common are everyday household issues that refugee parents run into, often because they don’t know how to support their kids in a new environment.

“I had a problem with my son,” said Amal Khalid, a refugee who arrived from Sudan with her three children last year. “My son (didn’t) listen to me, and he (didn’t) do his homework, and everything. Just he want to sit and watch TV and playing.”

Khalid said a staff member at RefugeeONE helped by making a schedule for her 8-year old son.

“She said you give him this routine for everything,” she explained. “When he (wakes) up, (goes) to school and he (comes) back, eat, and like one hour for writing, reading. I can’t do that by myself.”

Khalid said her son’s back on track now.

RefugeeONE’s youth program also provides a critical, one-stop shop for many teachers who need help reaching students’ families.

“If something arises throughout the year, that’s my first contact, again mostly because of the language barrier,” said Benjamin Meier, a math teacher at Roosevelt High school. The school has kids from more than 40 language backgrounds, including Arabic, Nepali, Amharic, Tigrinya, Karen, Zomi, Swahili, Dzongkha, and more.

Meier said RefugeeONE not only helps him communicate with parents, but also teaches parents how to get involved in their children’s education.

“A lot of the parents traditionally just defer to whatever the school says,” he explained. “We prefer more of a give-and-take.”

Meier said RefugeeONE’s youth program has been effective because it brings in families’ case workers to craft holistic approaches to children’s success.

Kano said RefugeeONE will dip into its general funds to keep services going through September. But if federal funds aren’t released by then, the organization is planning to discontinue its youth support in October.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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