Nonprofit has helped settle immigrants from Myanmar, Nepal, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and beyond
Students Abdurahman Juma, from left, Lu Reh, Tuang Sian Khai and Malka Arbab work together in an advanced English class at RefugeeOne. Juma and Arbab are from Sudan, Reh and Khai are from Myanmar. (Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune / December 15, 2011)
Four years after government persecution pushed him to flee his family's farm in Myanmar, Thangtung Pau found himself flying from Malaysia to Chicago on his 32nd birthday.
Pau arrived at O'Hare International Airport in July without much more than his refugee status and the English he had taught himself from a book. Five months later, Pau has a job as a maintenance worker at a Gold Coast gym, a small Edgewater apartment and a strong grip on conversational English.
He credits RefugeeOne, a nonprofit in Chicago'sUptown neighborhood, with helping him find his way in a new country.
"RefugeeOne is I feel like my parents since I arrived in Chicago because they help me in my everything," he said. "They taught me not only speaking English but also they taught me job class. That is awesome."
The agency, which changed its name last year from Interfaith Refugee and ImmigrationMinistries, opened its first office in Chicago in 1982. It helps settle 400 to 500 refugees each year. Over the years, it has assisted waves of newcomers from Iraq, Sudan, Cambodia,Nepal and Haiti, meeting each one at O'Hare with a case manager who speaks their language.
Once here, the agency provides refugees with a furnished apartment, job training, mental health and wellness services, and help procuring a Social Security number and other documents. Refugees arrive already in debt — they are obligated to repay the U.S. for the cost of their plane tickets — and the goal is to help them become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.
"They're survivors. They made it here. They made it through thick and thin to come to the United States," Executive Director Greg Wangerin said. "They have the energy, they have the enthusiasm, they have the desire to get their feet on the ground — and we're just here to help unlock a few doors."
Wangerin said most of the refugees now arriving in Chicago are Myanmar coming out of Thailand and Malaysia and Bhutanese from Nepal, along with Iraqis and a smaller number of African refugees from Somalia or the Darfur region of Sudan.
On a recent weekday, arrivals from Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea worked through an exercise about English past-tense verbs in one classroom while a handful of students in a neighboring computer lab puzzled out sentence structure.
Earlier that day, a group of Sudanese men met with Aimee Hilado, a clinical social worker, for group therapy. Some discussed fleeing Darfur and living as nomads for two years before settling in Kenyan refugee camps.
Hilado said a large number of refugees arrive in Chicago with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
"Some are also grieving for the people they left behind," she said. "We want them to be able to feel that emotion but still be able to engage."
Government agencies provide about 75 percent of RefugeeOne's $2.5 million budget, with the rest coming from private donations. RefugeeOne is one of many area nonprofits to receive financial support from Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.
The agency gets a one-time payment of $1,850 per refugee from the federal government, which is typically used up just setting up an apartment, Wangerin said. Gentrification in North Side neighborhoods where cheap apartments were once abundant has made it more difficult, he said.
Refugees apply for the same public aid available to Illinois residents, which expires after eight months, so the pressure is on to quickly find work, an obvious difficulty in today's job market.
"(We make it work) by hook or by crook with chewing gum and baling wire," Wangerin said.
Though some refugees arrive with an overly sunny view of America's job market, Pau, who spent several years in Malaysia applying for asylum, quickly learned differently.
"The United States is very different from Malaysia or Burma to get a job," he said. "So when I saw that point, I tried to improve my English faster."
Pau now plans to begin studying to earn a truck driver's license and hopes that his wife and 7-year-old daughter will be able to join him in Chicago, perhaps even next year.
"I'm very excited to get a job that I love," he said. "I gave thanks to God."