Youd Sinh Chao pats his student, Hong Yen Nguyen, on the back during an English Language Learning class in Seattle on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Chao came to the US as a refugee from Laos when he was 15 years old and now helps immigrants and refugees learn English through the Ready to Work Program. • Photo by Starla Sampaco
Youd Sinh Chao pats his student, Hong Yen Nguyen, on the back during an English Language Learning class in Seattle on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Chao came to the US as a refugee from Laos when he was 15 years old and now helps immigrants and refugees learn English through the Ready to Work Program. • Photo by Starla Sampaco

In December, a White House report highlighted two growing Seattle programs for their efforts to help immigrants and refugees overcome barriers to integration.

The City of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) oversees both of these programs: Ready to Work (RTW) and the Refugee Women’s Institute (RWI).

Since June 2015, RTW students have participated in English Language Learning (ELL) classes, digital literacy instruction and employment case management.

RWI was an eight-week program in which 20 pairs of refugee women and female Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers met weekly to discuss cross-cultural community relations and perceptions of police.

According to Glenn Scott Davis, RTW program specialist, both programs are a result of City of Seattle’s commitment to social justice and equity. Mayor Ed Murray showed his support by attending RTW on the first day of class last summer.

The December 2015 Progress Report from the White House Task Force on New Americans highlighted RTW as an example of adult education improving access to career development resources.

Federal funding for RTW amounts to $400,000 per year under the Community Development Block Grant.

At the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), instructors from Literacy Source and Seattle Colleges teach language classes for ELL students, including those who are not conversational in English.

Several of the people involved in the administration and implementation of RTW are immigrants themselves.

Instructor Youd Sinh Chao speaks to a Ready To Work student in Seattle on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. The students had just completed a vocabulary exercise in which they matched words describing occupations to corresponding images. •Photo by Starla Sampaco
Instructor Youd Sinh Chao speaks to a Ready To Work student in Seattle on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. The students had just completed a vocabulary exercise in which they matched words describing occupations to corresponding images. •Photo by Starla Sampaco

Youd Sinh Chao, a RTW instructor, originally came to the United States as a refugee from Laos.

For Chao, career development is not just about learning how to speak English; it is also about building self-confidence.

“I always tell this to my students: Don’t let what you cannot do stop you from doing what you can do,” Chao said.

According to ACRS data, 56 percent of the current RTW students are of Asian descent.

Ittikorn Hunsagul poses for a photo during a Ready To Work class in Seattle on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Hunsagul moved to the US from Thailand three months ago in hopes of providing a better future for his one-year-old son. • Starla Sampaco
Ittikorn Hunsagul poses for a photo during a Ready To Work class in Seattle on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. Hunsagul moved to the US from Thailand three months ago in hopes of providing a better future for his one-year-old son. • Starla Sampaco

Ittikorn Hunsagul is one of these students. Hunsagul began taking RTW classes in early January. With the help of Jarassri Yenbut, a Thai-speaking ACRS nurse consultant, Hunsagul explained that back in Thailand, he worked in architecture.

Now, he cooks and cleans at a Thai restaurant after class. He usually returns home at midnight.

“He came for the same reason I did,” Yenbut said tearfully. “To get a better future for his kid.”

Hunsagul came to the United States three months ago with his wife, Paprapan, and one-year-old son, Theory. Hunsagul said Paprapan does not attend RTW classes because she would not be allowed to take Theory into class.

According to Alexandra Olins, ACRS director of Employment and Citizenship and RTW program manager, ACRS offers some support services to students who face obstacles in coming to RTW classes. ACRS has given ORCA transportation cards to help some students access public transit to classes, for example.

However, ACRS does not currently provide childcare for RTW students.

As the program grows, Olins hopes to offer evening classes to accommodate students in situations like Hunsagul’s and Paprapan’s.

ACRS offered three quarter-long sessions of RTW classes since June. This winter, ACRS added a second class due to the growing number of students.

Olins said RTW is designed to be a pipeline to one-year certificate programs, which would open doors to family-supporting jobs and careers. Olins said that ACRS case managers work with students to make individualized employment plans.

Although some RTW students, like Hunsagul, have advanced degrees, most do not. Of the 36 current students, only 10 have had college-level education, and 14 do not have high school diplomas.

Abel Ghirmai, RTW’s program director of education and workforce development, said RTW is not just a one-quarter class. OIRA is working with RTI International to create a database to keep track of students’ employment status after they leave RTW.

Ghirmai, who originally came to the United States as an immigrant from Ethiopia, works for HomeSight, a non-profit organization that works to enhance economically and culturally diverse communities.

According to Ghirmai, RTW has been successful in helping its participants overcome barriers to employment. But he also hopes that employers, too, will be able to see past foreign-born job applicants’ accents and instead focus on their skills.

“The students just want to be part of the American Dream,” Ghirmai said.

Another underlying barrier to new immigrants’ employment, Ghirmai explained, is a lack of diversity among employers. The result, he said, is often a discriminatory tendency of hiring managers to favor people who resemble themselves.

This aspiration for cultural competency is also shared by SPD detective Carrie McNally, who worked closely with RWI.

McNally said the weekly RWI discussions were “eye-opening” for both the participants and the SPD officers.

The refugee women were originally from Bhutan, Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Kenya and Yemen.

In addition to learning about the participants’ cultures, the SPD officers learned about the refugee women’s perceptions of police.

“As police officers, we understand that some people have reasons to fear or be mistrustful of police,” McNally said. “But often we can’t relate and understand why.”

Although McNally has worked for SPD for 26 years, she said she was “shocked” to learn from a dispatch center supervisor that most of the refugee women were afraid of calling 911 because they feared that the police could ask them about their immigrant status and take their children.

However, SPD policy prohibits officers from requesting specific documents solely to establish a person’s immigration status.

“That was something we had to fix immediately,” McNally said.

The RWI produced an informational video that included a section titled “Know Your Rights,” which details a person’s rights if a police officer comes to their home.

McNally said people in law enforcement, in general, need to understand the community better, so people will feel safer. She also hopes that more law enforcement officers will be able to speak multiple languages.

“The future of law enforcement is much more inclusive of communities we represent,” McNally said.

Unlike RTW, RWI is funded by city dollars. Cuc Vu, the director of OIRA, estimated that RWI costed up to $200,000. These costs include overtime pay for SPD officers and stipends for the refugee women.

Based on feedback from the refugee women, the City of Seattle will pivot toward a program called the Immigrant Family Institute this year. This program will adapt the RWI curriculum to serve young immigrant men and their parents.

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