Charity wins national award for refugee aid

By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor

The staff of Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Migration and Refugee Services has received a national award from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for its work with refugees from Burma.

The award was presented to Catholic Charities staff-members in Washington, D.C., during the May 8-11 2012 National Convening of the Catholic bishops and agencies that work with refugees. Catholic Charities’ award, presented in the “ethnic communities” category, was one of a hand-ful of awards presented during the meeting.

“We are not working for the award, but it’s nice to be recognized,” Darko Mihaylovich, director of Migration and Refugee Services, said during a phone interview Friday, May 25. “We are proud of our program. It means a lot for the (Burmese) community.”

Refugees have been coming to Louisville from Burma since 2007. Catholic Charities and Kentucky Refugee Ministries have helped to resettle about 1,300 refugees from the southeast Asian country that’s bordered by India, Thailand and China.

The refugees have spent decades in refugee camps and come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, presenting various challenges as they settle in the United States, said Chris Clements, a Catholic Charities worker who helps refugees navigate life in Louisville. Clements was one of six staffers to receive the award in Washington.

“There are so many different types of Burmese refugees,” he noted during an interview last week. “There are Karen, Karenni, Chin, Ming and other smaller ethnic groups. And all these groups speak different languages. There aren’t many interpreters in our community that can speak all these languages.”

An explanation of the program also notes that because they lived for so long in overcrowded refugee camps, the Burmese refugees often suffer from depression and stress-related disorders, and have experienced gender-based violence. Many are illiterate and have low levels of education and job skills.

Refugees who are resettled in the United States are expected to become self-sufficient within six months of their arrival, Clements noted. That’s when most financial aid runs out and they are expected to be employed.

“When their six-months or 180 days passed, we were afraid they would fall through the cracks,” said Clements. “They were a fragile people. We decided to create this program for them,” called the Burmese Development Training Program.

The yearlong program began in January and it’s modeled on one that Catholic Charities has offered in years past to Burundi and Somali refugees. It aims to develop leaders from among the Burmese refugees who can organize a cohesive community that, in turn, can offer peer support to those who are struggling.

The program is open to refugees from Burma who arrived in the last few years and who have already had some success living in the United States, said Clements. They attend a weekend class every two weeks on a variety of topics, including leadership skills, social services, job development and community incorporation. There is a core group of about 10 people who participate regularly.

Funding for the program comes from the federal Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.

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