Nonprofit helps train refugees
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When refugees arrive at the Pittsburgh airport to resettle in the area, they almost always are exhausted and scared.
"It isn't just language," said Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services at Jewish Family & Children Services of Pittsburgh. "Sometimes the cultural differences are bigger than the language."
Ms. Aizenman said the nonprofit organization strives to help its clients who are refugees navigate government services and get their families settled into suitable, safe living quarters. It works toward its goal of helping refugees become financially independent by providing job readiness training.
The organization is recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals of the U.S. Department of Justice and is an affiliate agency of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, she said. It is one of myriad organizations across the country that offers immigrant-related legal and employment services to qualified refugees who fled their countries because of persecution, she explained.
"This is different from economic development," Ms. Aizenman said. "This is strictly humanitarian."
Last month, 11 refugees graduated from the first tier of the organization's job-readiness program, which received stimulus funding through a Community Services Block Grant and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"The students are certainly a focus," said Judy Berkowitz, refugee services coordinator at the nonprofit. "The [older] adults have a harder time adjusting so we wanted to see if we could get some of these younger adults to take a leadership role in their families and communities."
To do this, Ms. Berkowtiz and co-workers researched how other organizations across the country are engaging younger refugees and setting up weekly workshops to teach them everything from business etiquette to how to apply the skills they learned in their home communities to job opportunities in Pittsburgh.
"You have to remember their jobs in their villages might have been to forage for food," Ms. Aizenman said.
A separate grant from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Office of Community Services helped Jewish Family & Children Services of Pittsburgh offer a second tier of the program -- one that would help the 11 participants get actual experience as well as a paycheck.
The grant pays the wages to the interns for their employers, which is minimum wage for those younger than 18 and $10 an hour for those 18 and older.
"These students were already doing resumes, and this came in and I could tell them they really could get a summer job," Mr. Berkowitz said, adding it would have been impossible to place the students if it weren't for community partners such as Whitehall Public Library.
Karen Rock, a longtime educator and liaison for Jewish Family & Children Services, worked with the students throughout their training. She meets with the interns and their employers every week, and so far, she said, things are going swimmingly for all involved.
"Everyone is just so pleased with the interns and it's only been two weeks," she said. "I think it's a win-win situation."
Ms. Rock and others stressed that not only does the internship program help the students learn valuable work skills, it also helps them support their families.
Nan Kyi Kyi Htay, 16, said that's how she will use the money she earns this summer working at the Whitehall Library: to help buoy the family's savings.
She lived in a camp in Thailand with her parents, three brothers and two sisters before the family fled ethnic persecution in neighboring Burma in 2005 -- when Jewish Family & Children Services helped them resettle in Pittsburgh.
Nan, who will be a junior at Brashear High School in the fall, said she has enjoyed working in the children's section of the library.
"It's really fun," she said with a big smile. "The kids are so cute. I love it. They are shy, too, sometimes, but I just try to talk to them."
Nan said her summer job experience has inspired her to attend college and get a job in a library.
Paula Kelly, director of the Whitehall library, said she is happy she decided to have her library participate in the program, and that she encourages other local libraries to take part, too.
Ms. Kelly said the interns are willing to jump in to help the library staff with any task, and that simple jobs such as restocking paper or shelving books can make a big difference for the staff during the busy summer months.
"We're going to get spoiled and will be sad when they're gone," she said.
First Published July 22, 2010 6:24 am