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March 2011 Issue

Welcoming the Stranger

Alice Karanjah and her daughter Ninah.
Alice Karanjah and her daughter Ninah immigrated to the United States from Kenya in 2009 and found the help they needed to settle into their new life at Tacoma Community House, a national mission institution supported by United Methodist Women. Paul Jeffrey

By Paul Jeffrey

For more than a century, United Methodist Women-supported Tacoma Community House has helped refugees and immigrants make a home in Washington. 


When Alice Karanjah's husband died, his family quickly moved to take her possessions and land, leaving Ms. Karanjah and her three children with almost nothing, struggling to survive. It's a familiar story in Kenya, where women who become widows often slide quickly into deeper poverty. Yet Ms. Karanjah was determined not to let that happen, and she fought to keep her children in school and food on the table, working long hours at a small shop she opened.

And then one day she got lucky, winning the "green card lottery" for a visa from the U.S. consulate in Nairobi. She begged and borrowed the funds necessary to pay the consulate fees and purchase one-way airline tickets and, in late 2009, bundled her two youngest children up to travel to a new life in the United States.

The journey took Ms. Karanjah to a land that had intrigued her since childhood.

"I was fascinated by America when I was growing up. I learned about the slaves, and how they were taken there, and I wanted to learn more about how they eventually prospered. When Obama was elected, it won my heart, especially because his family is from my country. I cried every time I saw the news," she told response.

When Ms. Karanjah and her kids landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, she quickly realized her knowledge of the United States didn't include the Pacific Northwest's inclement weather.

"Before I came, I didn't know whether this part of the United States was desert or mountains. I remember studying in school the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes and the Transcontinental Railroad, but no one told me anything about Washington State. Fortunately, I like rain," she said.

Besides rain, what Ms. Karanjah soon discovered in Washington State was a warm welcome from the Tacoma Community House. Long supported by United Methodist Women, Tacoma Community House has helped her navigate her way toward making the United States her home. A Tacoma Community House counselor helped her find housing, got her into a training program for health workers at a local community college, and provided a listening ear when Ms. Karanjah's children had trouble adjusting to the new culture.

Meeting immigrant needs

Tacoma Community House was founded in 1910 by the Home Missionary Board of the Methodist Church to work with the children of newly arrived Italian immigrants in the Puget Sound area. Its history mirrors the demographic shifts in U.S. immigration, as it provided critical services to newcomers making this land their home. Tacoma Community House has been a pioneer along the way, hosting the city's first baby clinic, holding the first kindergarten class and hiring the city's first African-American teacher.

"...I really started to understand what an immigrant might be feeling in a strange new place, and the wonderful people from Tacoma Community House were right there to help every step of the way."

At the end of the Vietnam War, Washington had the third highest number of immigrants from Southeast Asia in the United States. Many of these new arrivals came through the doors and English classes of Tacoma Community House, which runs the largest refugee resettlement program in the area. When immigrant demographics shifted once again, Tacoma Community House welcomed new arrivals from Eastern Europe and Africa.

And then came the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the welcome mat was pulled back. With millions of refugees sitting in camps around the world, the United States didn't even accept the 70,000 people usually set as the annual ceiling. In fiscal year 2002, for example, the United States admitted only 27,029 refugees. The numbers slowly crept up in subsequent years, and President Barack Obama, reestablishing the United States as a place of welcome for immigrants, set a ceiling of 80,000 refugee admissions for fiscal year 2011. By comparison, the immigration ceiling in 1921 was 350,000 people.

While helping new immigrants master English remains a cornerstone of their work, Tacoma Community House staff provide a variety of other services. Classes on cooking with foods available in U.S. stores, for example, help newcomers practice English while learning about those funny vegetables in the produce section.

"How to measure ingredients and how read a recipe are also English skills. Part of what we teach are survival skills, but doing that is also just another way to teach English," said Liz Dunbar, the agency's executive director. "We focus on practical things, so in our English classes we teach people how to fill out a job application. They learn about money, about how to count and make change. They learn how to ask for directions, and how to talk about different parts of the body."

"Loyal and hard workers"

Placing immigrants in jobs is a critical part of resettlement work, and Tacoma Community House has a team of job developers who match immigrants with prospective employers.

"Over the years our staff has developed relationships with employers who know us and trust the people we send them," Ms. Dunbar said. "They have learned that immigrants are loyal and hard workers, and giving them a chance is a sound business decision."

Kaylee Davis, the human resources executive at Concrete Technology Corporation, which fabricates giant prestressed concrete beams in a factory alongside Puget Sound, has hired Tacoma Community House clients for several years.

"We've always received good candidates who are well prepared and ready to go to work," Ms. Davis said. "Often working here is a starting ground for them to get some experience, and they eventually move on. That's bad for us but good for another employer. Most of all it's good for the employee."

Some immigrants come with lots of skills in a particular field, especially health care, but are not able to get their credentials recognized in the United States. Tacoma Community House can refer some clients to a specialized re-credentialing program at a local community college, but Ms. Dunbar recognizes that the challenge remains. She serves on a special council advising Washington Governor Christine Gregoire on immigrant integration, which is tasked with finding solutions to the problems of credentialing professionals from other countries.

Many jobs available to immigrants pay only minimum wage, but Ms. Dunbar says that if the job is stable and includes some benefits, then workers will come back to Tacoma Community House at night to continue studying in order to move up in the job market. Tacoma Community House provides scholarships for many to study at community colleges. "We keep working with people past their first job," she said.

The task gets complicated at times by the interplay between family dynamics and U.S. culture. Many Eastern European immigrants, some of whom have come to the United States because of religious discrimination, have large families and issues about whether it's appropriate for women to work outside the home. If mothers do work, then paying for child care often becomes a problem. Similarly, women who are recent refugees from Somalia often have no formal education and no experience of working outside the home.

The economic recession has meant tough times for most job seekers, and in general immigrants are no different. Ms. Dunbar says Tacoma Community House works with its clients to help them compete. "In some cases, we'll help them stay in school longer so they can acquire more skills and thus be more competitive. We also work to get them experience including unpaid or subsidized placements, so they can better compete down the road," she said.

Ms. Davis of Concrete Technology Corporation said her hiring of immigrant workers has continued during the recession, in part because of her experience working with Tacoma Community House.

"With the labor market so full we can be more picky. And we know that when we call Tacoma Community House we're going to get people who've been well scrutinized and who can be trusted to work hard and adapt quickly," Ms. Davis said. "They're definitely highly motivated. They're here because they want to be successful, and for them having a job means succeeding. It's not the same for many of us who are accustomed to more easily finding a job."

"I work! I work!"

Veaceslav Cosoi came to the United States from Moldova in 2006 with his wife Larisa and three children. He knew little English, so he started English as a Second Language classes at Tacoma Community House. He progressed rapidly through the program and then enrolled in the sheet metal technology program at Bates Technical College.

In Moldova Mr. Cosoi had been a marketing manager, but he already had some of the necessary knowledge for his new profession.

"In high school my mother was my teacher in algebra, geometry and trigonometry, and I always asked her why I needed to learn that stuff. Now every day I use the Pythagorean Theorem and cosines," he said.

The day after he graduated from the program, he signed up with the union. He then waited eight months until the phone call came, telling him to report to work the next day. He looked up the address on MapQuest and called his wife to say, "I work! I work!" 

His job pays $20 an hour plus benefits, and he says he works hard, struggling at times to understand rapid-fire English. Mr. Cosoi asks for no favors, however. "It's not my foreman's job to teach me English," he said. At night he reads English novels — he likes James Fenimore Cooper — to sharpen his language skills.

The language of faith is one of the last things to change, however. On Sundays, Mr. Cosoi takes his family, which now includes another son, to worship at a Russian-speaking Pentecostal church, which meets in St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Tacoma.

Standing by immigrants

Ms. Dunbar says that because Tacoma Community House directors, staff and volunteers are intimately acquainted with the daily lives of immigrant families, they often speak out when xenophobia or racism threaten to harm the families they serve. For example, the chair of the agency's board of directors, Joseph Diaz, spoke last year at the Tacoma City Council in favor of a resolution to condemn Arizona's anti-immigrant legislation. The resolution passed.

Tacoma is the site of a privately run 1,000-bed federal detention facility where detained immigrants are held prior to deportation or other resolution of their cases. Ms. Dunbar says it's easy even for legal immigrants to end up there.

"You can be here legally and yet get stopped for a traffic infraction. When they run your information and find out that, say, 10 years ago you were convicted of shoplifting, then you're now liable for deportation," Ms. Dunbar said. "They'll take you to the detention center and deport you. We see a lot of that. It's frustrating, but there's very little we can do for those folks.

"It can tear families apart. We have Cambodians who came here as babies, and maybe they got in trouble as teen-agers. They're now in their 20s. They get stopped by police, who find they have a record. So they're deported back to Cambodia, even though they don't speak Khmer. They have no memory of Cam-bodia, but that doesn't matter. They get deported."

The Tacoma Community House building is owned by the Women's Division, the national policymaking arm of United Methodist Women. The division pays the facility's property insurance and helps finance major repairs for the building. The Women's Division also conducts training for the Tacoma Community House board of directors, and Ms. Dunbar has received executive directors training at the division's headquarters in New York.

"We have a good relationship with the Women's Division, and they have a lot to be proud of here. They started us, and we have thrived for more than 100 years," Ms. Dunbar said.

Tacoma Community House also depends on Tacoma-area United Methodist Women members — whom Ms. Dunbar calls "superstars"— for critical assistance with everything from mass mailings to making quilts, from collecting clothing to raising funds.

A face of immigration

Joan Schaeffer, president of the United Methodist Women in nearby Gig Harbor, Wash., says she was deeply moved during her local unit's visit to Tacoma Community House in 2007.

Ms. Schaeffer explained:

"I looked into the faces of those who had come to Tacoma Community House to learn about our culture and customs and our language as they tried to find their place in our world, which in most cases is so far away from their own. I tried to imagine how it must feel to be the one feeling so out of place. Never before had I really thought about where these people had come from or what they had left and where they were headed or hoped to be headed.

"That day I really started to understand what an immigrant might be feeling in a strange new place, and the wonderful people from Tacoma Community House were right there to help every step of the way."

As a result of that visit, the Gig Harbor United Methodist Women sponsors a mitten tree at Christmas to collect mittens, scarves, hats and gloves for Tacoma Community House clients. It hosts breakfasts at the church to raise money for the center and responds when it can to Tacoma Community House requests for particular client needs, such as a laptop computer or a vacuum cleaner. Unit members regularly show up to fold and stuff Tacoma Community House newsletters for mailing.

"Our purpose as United Methodist Women is to reach out and to make a difference," Ms. Schaeffer said. "Working with Tacoma Community House is an easy and rewarding way to do just that. They help show the rest of us what mission work is all about right here in our backyard."

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response.

Last Updated: 03/22/2014
 
 

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