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Refugee Center faces budget cuts

By Julie Wurth/ News-Gazette/URBANA -- About 2,600 people each year call on Anh Ha Ho and her colleagues with questions about schools, taxes, housing, jobs, medical care you name it. And most of them don't speak much English.

The East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center functions as a mini-social services agency, helping immigrants and refugees adjust to life in Champaign County.

Housed in a small office inside the Unitarian Universalist Church, 302 S. Birch St., U, the nonprofit charity has seen its client base grow almost every year since its founding in 1982.

But after struggling for months to keep operations going despite state payment delays, it now faces a bigger threat: a proposed $30,000 funding cut proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn for fiscal 2012.

State funding makes up about 30 percent of the organization's $190,000 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.

Co-director Anh Ha Ho said she'd like to hire more staff but "we can't," she said. "Funding doesn't look good at all."

At the same time, she said, "We can't see ourselves closing our doors." "We're the voice of those who can't express themselves. ... We're dealing with families, with human beings who have all kinds of issues and don't know where else to turn," she said. A

About 20,000 Champaign County residents, roughly 10 percent of the population, are foreign-born, according to Census estimates.

The center helps them find housing and transportation, apply for citizenship, fill out employment and Social Security forms, find child care, navigate the local school system, secure health care and even go grocery shopping.

Translation is a big service, whether it's translating documents or accompanying an immigrant to the doctor's office, a court appearance, job interview or a meeting with school principal, said Ha Ho, a Vietnamese immigrant who speaks English, French and Vietnamese.

Most of the clients hail from Central America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, and translators at the center speak nine languages.

The staff is small five employees, plus a few quarter-time positions.

The center has stretched its budget with volunteers UI language students who help with Spanish translation services, and sororities and fraternities who help tutor and mentor children on Saturday mornings.

But besides state funding cuts it's also losing about $4,000 from a five-year grant that expires this year from Jewish Family Services in Chicago.

Ha Ho and co-director Deb Hlavna have talked with legislators, but as with other agencies there's not much to do but wait for the budget process to unfold in Springfield.

It's difficult, she says, because "the cause we're serving is often misunderstood by others."

The vast majority of clients are here legally, she says, and even some who aren't have children who are legal residents because they were born here and "they're too young to speak for themselves."

Many immigrants come to Champaign County in hopes of achieving the American dream, but wind up in low-paying jobs.

Others are fleeing war, extreme poverty, political oppression, drug violence or natural disasters. "Immigration is still an important part of the whole country," Ha Ho said.

Fundraiser set

The fourth annual fundraising dinner for the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center is scheduled for April 16 at St. Patrick Catholic Church, 708 W. Main St., U.

Doors open at 6:15 p.m., and dinner will be served at 6:45 p.m. The event will feature international cuisine from Mexico, Vietnam, Iraq and Africa, as well as wine, a mariachi band and other international performers, dancing and a silent auction.

Tickets are $60 (cash or check only) and available at the refugee center, which is inside the Unitarian Universalist Church, 302 S. Birch St., U, and at St. Patrick's Parish Center. For information, contact the refugee center at or 344-8455.

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