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Budget problems threaten future of refugee center

By Shelley Smithson '”A Spanish-speaking woman calls the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center because she does not know where to turn for help. She says she was seriously injured when the balcony of her apartment collapsed and the apartment owner will not pay her hospital bills.

A French-speaking family from the Congo comes to the center needing housing, clothes and food for their six children. 

A pregnant Iraqi woman needs assistance because her insurance does not cover the cost of hospitalization during her labor and delivery. 

Every day, people from around the world find their way to the crowded offices of the refugee center, located inside the Unitarian Universalist Church at 302 S. Birch Ave., in Urbana. Last year, the organization, which is funded by private donations and local, state and federal funds, assisted 2,400 people. 

But funding shortfalls from the state threatened to close the center at the end of June.  Recent donations from the public will help the center remain open a few more months, but its future is still uncertain.

"I'm worried," said Deborah Hlavna, co-director of the center. "I'm worried because I don't see things improving. I don't see the state doing what is necessary."

Already, the charity organization has dipped into savings in order to keep operating. "At the end of the year, which is June 30, we should have $2,000 to $3,000 in our checking account," Hlavna said. "It takes anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 a month to run the agency."

The organization has a contract with the state for $3,000 a month, but "we have not been paid since December," Hlavna said. "I really don't think we'll see money until August or September and it will be last year's money." 

Hlavna said she worries that if the center closes, immigrants and refugees in Champaign County will struggle even more to find the help they need, especially without an organization to provide language translation. Staff members and volunteers at the center speak a total of nine languages.

"We take people to medical appointments, we talk to employers, we talk to landlords," Hlavna said. "If we fade, how do our clients find the help they need?" 

The non-profit organization was founded in 1982 to help war refugees coming to the area from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Today, the charity helps people from all over the world who have come to Champaign County. 

State funding makes up about 30 percent of the organization's budget, with the remainder coming from United Way, Champaign County Mental Health Board, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, the City of Urbana, local churches and private donations. 

Hlavna said the organization needs donations as well as volunteers to help with fund-raising. 

"If somebody wants to run a car wash on our behalf, we would love it," Hlvana said. 

Guadalupe Abreu, a bilingual counselor at the refugee center, said the organization helps immigrants and refugees to build a life in Champaign County. 

"The idea of working with these families is to be able to show them (and) teach them how to settle in this place and hoping that little by little, they are going to be able to do it," Abreu said.  

By Shelley Smithson 

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.