City of Refuge helps international refugees adjust to life in central Missouri [Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)]
(Columbia Daily Tribune (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Correction appended
It takes hard work to make it in this country, but hundreds of refugees from oceans away know it takes so much more.
Photo by August Kryger
Dim Sian Kim, 4, hands her mother, Vung Lun Cing, a strawberry while her father, Thang Khen Pau, speaks at their home in Columbia. Pau and Cing, a Burmese couple, are refugees who worked for Jen Wheeler's Safi-Sana cleaning company when they first arrived in Central Missouri.
Photo by August Kryger
Vung Lun Cing cooks a meal for friends while her husband, Thang Khen Pau, holds their daughter Dim Sian Kim.
Photo by Don Shrubshell
Jen Wheeler has been collecting all types of items for a benefit garage sale that helps families who have come to the United States.
That's because hard work doesn't always pay the bills. The inability to overcome a language barrier or find transportation or a lack of knowledge of the modern world can make it difficult to find work.
City of Refuge, a not-for-profit organization that assists refugees from around the world, helps hundreds of families make it in the United States.
"They need jobs more than they need clothes," said City of Refuge founder Jen Wheeler. "But they also need health insurance, transportation and" language-learning software "Rosetta Stone."
The population of refugees in Central Missouri, specifically Columbia, continues to increase as residents of troubled nations and territories seek asylum in the United States. Although it remains unknown exactly how many refugees are residing in Central Missouri, Refugee and Immigration Services of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City is believed to be responsible for the majority of local immigration, Wheeler said.
Since 1975, the agency has assisted people from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America find their way to Central Missouri. The diocese pays rent for refugee families for the first six months. Other necessities such as furnishings, bus passes and one month of paid utilities also are provided.
It's not until grant funding is depleted that the newcomers are in some ways on their own in a great big new world.
Through City of Refuge, Wheeler said she tries her best to provide people with the resources they need. That means transportation to doctors appointments, English classes, clothing, food and, most important, work.
Started in September 2010, City of Refuge was organized in response to the generosity of others and success of a small cleaning service Wheeler created called Safi-Sana LLC. The organization's origins, however, date back to January 2009, when Wheeler and her husband, Adam Wheeler, a local pediatrician, were attending a Christian Fellowship Church service.
About 50 East African immigrants often attended services, but Wheeler said she feared to approach them.
"I used to be afraid to speak to people who didn't speak English," she said. "I knew they were there. What would I say?"
The pastor encouraged his flock to make the refugees feel at home, so a group of refugees ages 15 to 25 attended dinner one night for Bible study. Lucky to have a trio of French interpreters, Wheeler said she made a connection with her new friends and recognized their needs.
"They have never seen spaghetti or tacos," she said. "Everything we made we had to show them how to eat it. ... I got that burden that night."
Wheeler said she became fascinated with the stories some would tell and the way they lived their lives. Raised in Florissant, she recalls her middle-class lifestyle and the "very white neighborhood" she grew up in to be foreign from the obstacles these newcomers face.
People come to the United States for many reasons. Some Iraqi refugees have been relocated to Columbia because they assisted the American government and its troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Others come from villages or refugee camps in Africa and Malaysia where people slept on the dirt and their lone understanding of work was hunting and gathering.
The things American adults do each day to get by, Wheeler said, are new and unfamiliar to these people. She found herself assisting many with the simple tasks of reading their mail, teaching them to operate cellphones and helping set up bank accounts.
Refugees and their children also had transportation needs. "At the time, I had two kids. I said, 'I'm not their mom.' Adam said, 'Yes you are,' " Wheeler explained. "I thought about it and embraced it."
Recognizing a need for employment, Wheeler said she dreamed up the idea of starting a cleaning service. Safi-Sana, which means "very clean" in Swahili, was born soon after.
"I literally Googled 'How to start a business,' " she said.
On average, about 10 to 15 people work for the cleaning service, which has contracts with local hotels and businesses for work that pays about $9 an hour. Turnover is high because some workers move on to higher-paying employment. Some don't like the work because they have no experience in making beds and find little fulfillment.
Profit derived from the business is used for employees' basic needs, Wheeler said. When she realized the multitude of services she provided, it only made sense to create a not-for-profit such as City of Refuge and establish Safi-Sana as a division of the charity.
In January, an additional division of the charity sprung to life with the creation of Freedom Landscapes. Operated by James Rawlings, the lawn service employs four refugees. The organization's slogan is "Freeing you from yard work while offering freedom to refugees."
"I'm not in it to make a killing," Rawlings said. "I do well enough to make a living and provide a living for refugees."
A youth pastor at Midway Baptist Church, Rawlings said his church also provides services to local refugees.
With the assistance of Lori Stoll, a volunteer who now coordinates Safi-Sana, Wheeler also has delegated transportation responsibilities to Burundi refugee Noe Rusaya. The 38-year-old husband and father of four escaped civil war in Congo to reside in camps in Burundi before his immigration to America.
An educated man, Rusaya supervised a not-for-profit HIV clinic while in Africa and at one time attempted to open a school in a Burundi camp. He said his family fled after continuous uprisings and witnessing assassinations.
In Columbia, Rusaya bounced from job to job. He worked at a local hotel for seven months but quit before taking over for Wheeler. He now takes other refugees to doctor, dentist and other appointments, sometimes as far as Kansas City and St. Louis.
"They tell me to do stuff, but I don't understand," he said of his first jobs.
Rusaya finds more dignity in driving than cleaning work. His education does not meet the credentials of American standards, but he hopes to return to school in the fall.
Through material donations to City of Refuge, such as food, clothes, books, DVDs and electronics, Wheeler said she often hosts garage sales to sell additional donations. Those funds go toward special projects such as potentially helping Rusaya with tuition or reuniting refugee families.
Thang Khen Pau and Vung Lun Cing, a Burmese couple, are refugees who both worked for Wheeler's Safi-Sana and are hopeful to bring Cing's brother from Burma.
Pau said he was so thankful for the opportunity to work and provide for his wife and two children upon arrival to Columbia that it was hard to move on because he was loyal. He did so when a higher- paying job came along, and Cing now works as a stay-at-home mom.
"I can feed three families here," he said of sending money back to both his and Cing's parents.
Here in Columbia, Pau said, life is much better than in Burma. There, Pau worked construction with his uncle. Without payment, the army would make them build structures.
"If I don't leave, they would come get us," he said of the army.
The couple recognizes that not all refugees share the same success story. Some come from "the forest" and lack basic skills such as reading and writing, Cing said.
In contrast, Pau and Cing said they learn English each day from their oldest daughter, 4-year-old Dim Sian Kim, who attends Columbia Public Schools.
This page has been revised to reflect the following correction:
SECOND THOUGHTS: Sunday, April 29, 2012
Yesterday's Saturday Business story about City of Refuge included the incorrect name of the owner of Freedom Landscapes. It is James Rawlings, not Randy Rawlings.
Reach Brennan David at 573-815-1718 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article was published in Saturday Business on page 9 of the Saturday, April 28, 2012 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline "FINDING REFUGE: City of Refuge is there to lend a hand and offer a job when refugees come to Central Missouri." Click here to Subscribe.
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