Westfield organization helps newly arrived refugees succeed

WESTFIELD – Ascentria Care Alliance Services for New Americans, located in Suite 401 at 94 North Elm Street in Westfield, helps refugees who arrive in Hampden County find housing, learn English, find a job, and to succeed.
Mohammed Najeeb, program manager for western Massachusetts, knows what he’s talking about. He arrived here in 2009 from Iraq on a special immigrant visa for those who worked with the Americans. Najeeb was a cultural advisor to a US Army commanding general in Iraq. He was resettled by Ascentria (then known as Lutheran Social Services) in West Springfield. Soon he started to volunteer for the program, and three years ago became the manager for the refugee resettlement program in western Mass.
“When you’ve been on both sides of the bridge, processed overseas, you know both sides of the story,” Najeeb said.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM), a refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Currently, there are approximately 15.4 million refugees in the world, according to United Nations estimates. The vast majority of these refugees will receive support in the country to which they fled until they can voluntarily and safely return to their home country. A small number of refugees will be allowed to become citizens in the country to which they fled, and an even smaller number — primarily those who are at the highest risk — will be resettled in a third country. The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) reports that less than 1 percent of all refugees are resettled in third countries.
Before a refugee can come to the U.S., he or she must first be processed by one of nine overseas Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) that are funded and managed by the U.S. The RSCs collect biographic and other information from the applicants to prepare for the adjudication interview and for security screening. Enhanced security screening is a joint responsibility of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security and includes the participation of multiple U.S. government security agencies.
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) review all the information that the RSC has collected and also conduct an in-person interview with each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve him or her for resettlement in the United States.
Finally, the RSC requests a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees. That’s where resettlement programs like Ascentria come in.
“We don’t determine who comes to the U.S. as refugees or who comes to Hampden County,” Najeeb said. “Our job begins when everyone is processed through the system.”
He said they can get as little as two weeks’ notice for new arrivals, sometimes less.
“It’s a process more complicated than any other process,” he said. “People can wait for years.”
For FY 16, Ascentria has been approved to receive 340 individuals. In September alone, 70 individuals arrived. The new arrivals are resettled all over Hampden County.
“We’ve been approved in previous years at a higher number than this,” Najeeb said.
Ascentria’s profile says that the western Massachusetts office has the capacity to help Iraqis, Bhutanese, Somalis, Syrians and Russians.
“We have the language capacity among our staff,” Najeeb said.
The dominant groups for the past couple of years have been Iraqis, Bhutanese and Somalis. Najeeb said Syrians have been a very minor population. In the last two to three years, they have helped resettle two Syrian families, one of whom had a child with a serious medical condition.
“We’ll probably have another Syrian family in the next month or so,” he said.
Another distinction is between two types of refugees that arrive: free cases and U.S. tie cases. A free case is a refugee who doesn’t have any relatives or friends in the U.S. A U.S. tie case, is someone who has family members, cousins, friends, or relatives. Seventy-five percent of Ascentria’s cases have U.S. ties.
“They’ll come where their relatives are, where the community is established,” he said.
Najeeb first came to West Springfield as a free case. For free cases, Ascentria provides the same services.
“They need extra attention and care because we have to go the extra mile to provide them with services and make sure they’re comfortable,” he said.
The program’s first and most difficult task is to secure affordable housing for new arrivals. Ascentria draws on a contact list of landlords.
“God bless them,” Najeeb said. “They have been very helpful.”
Churches and other organizations also help.
“Full Gospel Church has been very wonderful to us. They offer all the help they can provide,” he said.
He also mentioned the help of the Episcopal Migration Ministries all over western Mass.
A one-time per capita federal grant helps pay for the families and secure lodging. Ascentria provides additional services.
“We do a furniture run, provide meals ready to eat that are culturally appropriate, and send volunteers or staff to do the shopping for new arrivals,” he said.
The refugees are also eligible for case management from Ascentria. Case managers make referrals to service providers in the area, help get health insurance, apply for social security cards and public benefits. They also help enroll children in school, get them vaccinated, and for youth of eligible age, to sign up for selective service.
The case management is a federal contract for up to 90 days. “We’ve been pushing for more time to spend with refugees on case management,” Najeeb said, adding that he still sees people come in four or five years after being resettled. “We have an open door.”
For the new arrivals to get a job, they need to speak English. Ascentria has an education and employment department. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for individuals 18 and over are held from 10:00 am – 12:30 p.m. in the North Elm Street site for various levels of English, and are meant to be employment focused.
Along with English, job readiness skills are taught, such as how to interview, how to be respectful of employers, and how to be punctual. In the beginning, many rely on the community and on volunteers to transport them to work. Massachusetts is ranked one of the top three states when it comes to refugee employment, according to Najeeb.
Another program Ascentria offers is business development for those who wish to start their own enterprise.
“Starting a business is a whole process,” Najeeb said. Ascentria staff assists with planning, financial management and advocacy, and helps entrepreneurs find locations, and obtain permits and loans.
“You have to have a certain credit history to get a loan – but through the bridges and partnerships we have built, this is possible through us,” Najeeb said.
He said the results of this program may be seen on a drive through Main Street in West Springfield, where the refugee-owned businesses “add an extra flavor to the American culture.”
Najeeb said that he and his staff are always available to speak to groups about their work here.
“Thank you to the community stakeholders, everybody here,” Najeeb said. “If it weren’t for their good will, help and kindness, this process would be very difficult.”

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