Local agencies win grants to teach emigres job skills

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Ten years ago, the typical Soviet refugee seeking resettlement aid from local Jewish agencies held advanced degrees in medical or professional fields, was conversant in English and acclimated fairly quickly.

Times have changed.

Now, that emigre more likely is slightly older, has no college education, speaks little English, has few transferable job skills and must care for both children and parents.

To compound the problem, U.S. resettlement dollars, which are based on the numbers of refugees, have grown scarcer since immigration declined after the highs of the 1980s.

To ensure that emigres today get the same quality of services that were available a decade ago, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has awarded $50,000 to a San Francisco program that targets hard-to-place job-seekers.

The collaborative effort of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services and Jewish Vocational Services was one of 23 U.S. resettlement programs to receive HIAS grants last month. Targeting "creative programs for refugees," HIAS handed out a total of $1 million in grants.

"In a general sense, we were looking for programs that are especially innovative," Leonard Glickman, executive vice president of HIAS, which is based in New York, said last week.

"At the local level many are feeling a particular pinch because of the per capita funding. For example, the San Francisco office has had to cut back on staff. From a refugee's standpoint, that is important."

San Francisco, a major refugee resettlement center, has been hard hit by the plunge in government funding that has accompanied slowing immigration. Federal support for Jewish resettlement efforts slid from $46 million in 1994 when 33,000 refugees arrived in the United States to $14 million in 1998 when 7,500 landed on American shores.

The HIAS grant will help teach emigres skills they need once they've found jobs, such as improving chances for promotions or negotiating raises.

"The majority of services that are available to a refugee conclude after they get a job. But they may continue to need help," said Elizabeth Toops, who oversees refugee resettlement services for JVS.

In San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country, it is a challenge to get emigres "to a place where they're earning a livable wage," she said. And for those aged 50 and above, "their skills are even more antiquated."

The collaborative effort with JFCS, she said, enables the emigres to receive both vocational assistance and social support services.

Some of the emigres have medical problems. In other families, many generations living under one roof may sandwich the prospective job seeker into a tough position — caring for an ailing parent while seeking quality child care for young children.

"We see that very often," Toops said. "We stay in close contact. Sometimes a family is in distress, experiencing a real struggle. It may be financial or they may have a child in school who is having some real difficulties. That's where JFCS comes in."

Fifty agencies applied for the one-year HIAS grants. The awards, in varying amounts, will serve needs such as mental-health care, acculturation, naturalization and employment.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.