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Syrian Refugee Success Here Threatened by State Budget Fight: Aid Group

By Linze Rice | September 29, 2015 9:59am
 An English class for adult learners underway at Howard Area Community Center.
An English class for adult learners underway at Howard Area Community Center.
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice

ROGERS PARK — The United States is opening its doors to help Syrians fleeing war but one Far North Side aid organization is worried it'll soon have to turn those refugees away for lack of funding.

Syrian families have been reportedly relocating to North Side neighborhoods such as Albany Park, West Ridge and Rogers Park. The Obama administration said earlier this month that the U.S. would take in 10,000 Syrians fleeing their war-torn country over the next year.

But a Howard Area Community Center official says although the organization wants to help, it "can't keep going forever."

Shannon Callahan, director of education and employment with HACC, says the organization has been among those social service agencies that have seen funding reduced as part of the state budget fight between Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders now in its third month.

"If the state budget impasse continues we will absolutely have to turn people away because we won't have the ability to take care of the current students that we have, nor will we be able to accept new students," said Callahan.

Callahan said her agency provides "a really clear path to the future" for refugees and "if they don't have that, and they aren't accessing the knowledge on a regular basis, then what are they supposed to do?"

From Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 94 Syrian refugees have made it to Illinois, according to the U.S. State Department's Refugee Processing Center.  From the beginning of the year until Sept. 28, 71 refugees from Syria have been resettled in Chicago.

Frontline agencies in the city like World Relief Chicago and Heartland Alliance help refugees take their first steps into America, greeting them at the airport and helping to find them housing, among other services.

Once those people are settled, they often need to move on to the next phase: learning to read and write English, how to exchange U.S. currency, where to enroll children in school, the steps necessary to find a job and more.

While adults are enrolled in daytime classes, HACC has long provided childcare — a service they say is crucial for the success of the parents because it helps them focus on learning. Adult learners are typically in classes four days a week for four hours at a time, with parent engagement classes on Fridays.

Volunteers, instructors and tutors work one-on-one with refugees helping them with food, dental and housing needs, and finding access to technology such as computer labs.

Of the people who enroll in the HACC's English as a Second Language programs, about 50 percent are refugees, Callahan said.

The goal of the organization is to teach refugees how to navigate American culture and the basics to everyday living. The group also helps forge the path to citizenship for the refugees.

But these programs are soon to be nonexistent because of the budget impasse which has frozen state funds, says Callahan.

"Without being able to access those funding sources, it's putting us at great risk so we are not going to be able to continue to provide the services that we've been providing the community for almost 50-plus years," Callahan said. "The fear is, once you dismantle something, it's really hard to build it back up."

One major problem stems from HACC getting most of its funding from the government: what they gain from the state, the federal government matches, Callahan says. So, lack of state funds means a lack of federal dollars, she said.

The situation goes against Rauner's pro-business platform, Callahan argues — if refugees can't access resources they need to gain citizenship, learn English and enroll the next generation of leaders in school, it will be impossible to become viable financial contributors to the economy.

And the likelihood of lifting members of the Syrian refugee up and into the arms of Illinois — or at least Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood — is becoming less and less, Callahan says.

She described people who have escaped their country, been traumatized by living in refugee camps and "then come here and we're like, 'I'm sorry, we don't have anything to offer you.'...It's discouraging," Callahan said.

HACC spokeswoman Elizabeth Ulion said one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to helping refugees is that organizations like hers are finding support from the state.

"It's a misconception the money is getting through, it's just not true," Ulion said. "We are that 10 percent that's not getting funded."

The center says it costs them an average of $799 per year per client to provide adult education and family literary services.

For refugees, it's not as simple as leaving a country and starting anew, Callahan said. Some refugees have spent so much time fleeing violence or being kept in camps that they've had little or no education. It's organizations like HACC who help, she said.

HACC has been working with state legislators to help put pressure on Rauner. And last week, HACC sent letters written in English by adult students to Ald. Joe Moore (49th) describing their desire to become American citizens and emphasizing their determination to succeed.

In the meantime, community members can support HACC and their efforts to help Syrians and other refugees by participating in their annual Adult Spelling Bee fundraiser on Oct. 29. You must register by Oct. 9 at dlagacy@howardarea.org.

"My fear is that as long as the state budget impasse continues, the services across the city are just going to be dismantled," Callahan said. "So there will be less and less services provided, and the more refugees that come in, the less refugees we're going to be able to help — so we're really setting them up for failure. If you don't have structure in place to support people you're bringing in, you're really doing them a disservice."

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