International Institute of Akron: Helping the Foreign Born 
Integrate into Society
 Part One – 2010-03-26

By: Katie Sobiech

The International Institute of Akron (IIA) was patterned after a movement that began in 1910 in New York City. It was originally designed to protect female immigrants arriving in the states unaccompanied. These foreign women were easy prey to many because of the fact that they did not speak English or have anyone to help them transition into society.

The IIA was established by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in 1916, with the same purpose: assisting foreign-born women. Later, services grew to include all foreign-born families.

Now the IIA serves many families in Akron in a variety of ways, including teaching them English, offering translation services, providing classes and things that they need in order to make their transition into society as smooth as possible.

On the Waiting List

It has been estimated that over one million people are waiting in refugee camps, in Burma alone (www.burmeserefugees.org). Countless other foreigners wait in their countries as well, in hopes that the Federal Government will allow them to come to America.

“The State Department determines the amount of refugees that can come into this country every year, and there are only so many refugee resettlement agencies that they can come through to get transitioned back into society,” Shelly Durbin, Director and part of the Development and Public Relations for the International Institute of Akron, said.

“Akron is one of them. They feel Akron is a safe community for refugees, so we’ve been getting a lot more,” Durbin explained.

The majority of these refugees and immigrants come from Burma.

The Reason for Resettlement

Both immigrants and refugees flee their countries for a variety of reasons.

“It depends on what’s going on in the world; whether it’s threats of persecution, threats of death, ethnic cleansing…But they are in camps for a while before they escape their country,” Durbin said.

“There is a long waiting period. Sometimes ten years before they can actually come to the country,” Durbin continued, “There are a lot more people in the camps than people sent to the countries to live.”

Coming out of Crisis

So why are so many Burmese fleeing their country?

“Right now the reason that we have a large population of Burmese coming in is because of the corrupt government that has persecuted the citizens. They also had a big tsunami that devastated the countryside. So a lot of people are in fear for their lives and not safe. It’s a bad environment,” Durbin said.

Other war-torn lands also bring in more refugees, such as the Nepalese, Uzbek and Vietnamese.

“A lot of the Burmese lived in the jungles, so some are illiterate in their own language. Coming here and learning English and to read and write is a challenge,” Durbin said.

As the chosen few get selected and sent to the U.S., oftentimes coming from jungle life, you can imagine their need for help in integrating into society.

Integrating into Society

The goal of IIA is to provide programs and services to help the foreign-born transition into the American culture. Some of their programs include:

  • Refugee Resettlement
  • Immigration Counseling
  • Employment Counseling/Placement
  • Interpreting and Translating Service
  • Cultural Competency Training
  • ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes
  • Financial Literacy
  • Youth Programs
  • Acculturation Activities

“We’ve had to conduct workshops; we call them a ‘Clean and Happy Home’. They help them adjust to life and living in apartments, how to use appliances and cleaning materials. We teach them about hygiene. The adults have never had any formal education,” Durbin said.

They also have English classes, a youth after school program, tutoring program and educational field trips for the kids. Some of these trips include going to the zoo, art museum and library.

“We also have a Financial Empowerment Program which offers financial literacy classes on how to use the banks, how to save money, save for a car or home, understanding insurance, credit, and financial safety – things like that,” Durbin explained.

Their translation interpreting service is also very useful to those with little or no understanding of the English language.

“We have contract interpreters for over 100 different languages. They will go to a court hearing and interpret, or a doctors office, or hospital – things like that,” Durbin said.

 

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