Refugee center working with less money

URBANA — The loss of a $4,000 grant and a few thousand dollars of state funding has forced a local refugee center to tighten its belt, but it hasn't cut back on the number of people it serves each year.

Founded in 1982, the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center in Urbana continues to help about 2,600 people a year navigate their way in a new country.

The clientele was in the hundreds in the center's first year of operation, when it served only Southeast Asians, said co-director Anh Ha Ho, a Vietnamese immigrants. It has since expanded to serve "all ethnicities from all avenues," she said this week.

The refugee center is celebrating its 30th anniversary at its annual fundraising dinner on Saturday night at St. Patrick's Church in Urbana. The event raised about $14,500 last year, and co-director Deb Hlavna is hoping to bring in $20,000 this weekend.

Doors open at 6:15 at the parish center, 708 W. Main St., U, and dinner will be served at 6:45 p.m. The event will feature international cuisine from Mexico, Vietnam, Argentina and Africa, as well as wine, and entertainment by the Urbana High School jazz band, African drummer Bolokada Conde and other international performers.

Among the silent auction items are a GPS, Kindle, Krannert Center tickets with dinner at Milo's restaurant, a weekend in Chicago, and gift certificates from restaurants and other local businesses.

Tickets are $60 (cash or check only) and available at the refugee center, which is inside the Unitarian Universalist Church, 302 W. Birch St., U, and at St. Patricks Parish Center. For information, contact the refugee center at ecirmac@hotmail.com or 344-8455.

The dinner is intended to not only raise needed income but raise awareness and "remind people that immigrants and refugees are part of the community, and we are here to be their voice because they cannot speak for themselves," Ha Ho said.

About 20,000 Champaign County residents, roughly 10 percent of the population, are foreign-born, according to census estimates. Most of the center's clients hail from Central America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa, and translators at the center speak nine languages.

The center helps immigrants and refugees find housing and transportation, apply for citizenship, obtain medical care, communicate with local school systems, fill out job applications or tax forms and even go grocery shopping.

The center's state funding was trimmed by about $2,000 this year, and it continues to struggle with delayed state payments, Hlavna said. The $40,000 of state funding makes up about 30 percent of its budget, with the rest coming from local agencies, churches and individual donors.

A five-year federal grant funded through Jewish Family Services in Chicago, which brought in $4,000 annually, expired this year, Hlavna said.

The staff has tried to cut costs by keeping driving to a minimum, postponing the replacement of computers and going without decent raises, she said. Hlavna would love to give employees a "healthy raise," expand the hours of a part-time staff member who works with Spanish-speaking families, and hire more people to help families work with local schools and assist with a Saturday program for children.

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