A wing of St. Anthony’s Church in Kansas City’s Northeast area hums on weekdays and evenings with the sound of people getting their bearings in a strange land.
In one room, students from Somalia and Congo are sounding out words as basic as “umbrella.” In another, refugees are working with an elementary computer program. One woman is afraid to touch the mouse; she’d never seen one before.
In yet another room, teacher Kat Tonnies walks students through a goal-setting exercise. Ratna Senchuri, who arrived here three years ago, aspires to become a businessman. He owned a jewelry store in Nepal.
“What’s step number one?” Tonnies asks.
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“I go to school, learn English.”
“What’s number two?”
“I take the GED.”
“I go to college.”
The Don Bosco School of English, which runs the program in cooperation with the Independence School District, will help with all of those steps. It’s hard work, though, especially for the clients, who come here with nothing and are expected to swiftly find jobs and become independent.
All of that may become even harder if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services carries through with a plan to divert funds for refugee resettlement to deal with the crisis of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into the United States at the southern border.
Agencies have received word that as much as $94 million may be re-channeled, said Steve Weitkamp, director of refugee services for Jewish Vocational Services, which receives and assists families who have been granted refugee status by the U.S. State Department.
It’s a terrible idea. Agencies like Jewish Vocational Services use the money to help refugees access child care, employment and, if necessary, counseling to better cope with the terrors of the past and the strangeness of the present.
These are the very services that help adults and their families become independent citizens, in a position to pay taxes and contribute to their new nation. Take them away, and the recipients will become more dependent on other, long-term forms of government aid — exactly what they and the American public want to avoid.
Congress should authorize new money to care for and swiftly determine the legal status of children who are entering the United States by the droves, fleeing violence and extortion by gangs and often hoping to unite with parents already here.
The Obama administration needs to carry through on its pledge to help Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador deal with poverty and rampant gang violence.
And though a dim hope, it bears repeating that Congress needs to do the right thing and pass comprehensive immigration reform.
But none of those long-term remedies will come about any sooner by taking money away from refugees and resettlement agencies that already work on stretched budgets.
About 70,000 refugees are allowed into the United States in any given year, a small drop in a very large bucket. They live in the shadows of cities and towns and generally attract little notice as they go about rebuilding lives that have been torn up by wars, famines and other horrors. They have little voice of their own to protest a bad idea, so others should speak up for them.