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Social Services Mon Dec 14 2009

Communities in a Strange Land: Immigrant Social Services in the Recession

[Editor's Note: This article was submitted by Caleb Melby]

One war, four wounds, 13 years in a Communist prison. These were the numbers that defined Francis Khuc's life before he immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. Now, the spry 60-year-old is a proud American with service awards that hang above his desk at The Vietnamese Association of Illinois on N. Broadway in Edgewater.

Khuc's transition to an American way of life was difficult. He faced challenges common to the immigrant experience - culture shock, a new language and the absence of a typical Vietnamese family support structure. The shift is an especially difficult one for the elderly, says Khuc, who now helps Vietnamese seniors prepare for citizenship tests.

"Some seniors, they told me I am blind when I come to America, I am crippled when I come to America, I am deaf when I come to America. I say why? I am a mute because I do not speak English. I am a deaf because I cannot hear someone speak English. I am a crippled because I cannot drive," Khuc says.

It was in the face of stories like these that The Vietnamese Association of Illinois and other organizations like Chinese Mutual Aid, Asian Human Services and The Filipino American Council of Greater Chicago were founded.


Communities in a Strange Land

Each organization offers a variety of services available to immigrant senior citizens, ranging from calligraphy, dance, chess and bingo to health care, citizenship test training, homecare and employment services.

Language barriers are a concern on multiple levels - limiting employment options and isolating elderly immigrants from those around them, says Deborah Jackson, Director of the Mental Health Program at AHS.

"They [seniors] have a tendency to be very isolated, and they may be living with a family that's working all day and all night, so they're home alone," says Jackson. "What we're doing is bringing people together in a group setting to have social time [...] It's really about providing a sense of wellbeing and connections to others. There's a need for that social connection."

These organizations' community programs are places where common languages are spoken and familiar traditions are kept - microcosms of past lives. They are virtually "second homes" says Constance Santos, an 88-year-old Filipino immigrant who frequents FACC bingo games and other senior activities.

"My car knows its way over here back and forth - like a yoyo," says Santos, who is the oldest Filipino immigrant to have immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s.

Santos isn't the only one that has found a sense of community through these ethnic organizations. Johnson Wong, the Supervisor for Senior Services at CMA says that the seniors he works with have become a part of an extended family.

"Some of them, they call me father. For a while, I said, 'no, I'm not your father.' But after a while, the idea grew on me," Wong says.

Networking in Hard Times

Warm feelings have done little to curb the struggle that these organizations have been facing since the recession hit, however. VAI once boasted over 30 paid employees and is now trying to provide the same quality and quantity of services with nine. The organization tends to get its checks from the city of Chicago late, meaning that its employees often go a month or more without pay.

Other organizations have weathered better. AHS, a larger umbrella organization, gets the bulk of its funding directly from state and federal sources, which have continued to fund it throughout the recession. Jackson attributes the continued support to the diversity of the organization's resources and to its standing in the Chicago area.

"We're very well known in the community," says Jackson. "We're the only mental health agency in the metropolitan area of Chicago and across the state that provides mental health in about 10 languages. I've also had longstanding staff here, and they're connected to the communities we're providing services to."

AHS serves members of all of Chicago's underserved communities - not just Asian populations. Clients pay for services on a sliding scale, meaning poorer individuals pay less. And as other organizations are taking hits, AHS has seen an increasing number of impoverished clients come in.

"We [ethnic organizations] support each other in providing services to the same populations," says Jackson. "We have linkage agreements meaning that if we've got someone who would be good for their services, we send them there and vice versa."

Making Do

No one is giving up yet.

The FACC never received government funding in the first place. It is primarily funded by donations and through renting out its building - sometimes for weddings. Donations have wavered, says Treasurer Jaime Alban, but with their building already paid for, there is little to worry about.

At the CMA, Wong's Golden Age Club's membership has grown from 50 members when it was created in 2005 to over 350. The seniors now vote for their own leadership board, which helps organize events and does some of the clerical work that once fell into the domain of paid staffers.

The VAI's staff now play multiple roles - tutor, counselor, teacher; and have done their best to recruit volunteers from the area's universities. Extra unpaid hours are now part of the job description.

For individuals like Wong, Khuc, and Jackson, serving immigrant communities is a labor of passion.

"We've got a niche here that we're really saving people's lives and making their lives better and richer," says Jackson. "There's just something about working with immigrants and refugees that's really very fulfilling to me."

Lorraine K. Lee, Amie Ninh, and Jennifer Haderspeck contributed reporting.

 
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