Refugees have been coming to the United States legally since the end of World War II and have been living amongst Americas, but most are not aware of it.
“You may see someone wearing a native costume and think that person is from another country,” said Margaret Costantino, director of the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio. “If they’re wearing street clothes like you and I, they’re going to look like an American, so a lot of times we don’t even notice that people that are here have recently come from other countries.”
The Center for Refugee Services is a 4-year-old NGO that consists of a team of about 35 volunteers who are dedicated to creating an equal playing field for resettled refugees. A resettled refugee is a person, who has been approved by United Nations overseas and has been declared a refugee in whatever country, or refuge, they’ve gone to and then gets transported to a second country. A refugee is a person who has left their country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
The center focuses on a few key areas that can impact people’s lives, such as educational support, health and wellness, as well as employment assistance.
“Everything that makes a person successful in this country falls under one, or all of those categories,” said Costantino. “If you can speak the language, have reasonably decent health and if you can get a job, you’re going to be much more apt to succeed than someone who does not have those advantages.”
They also offer ESL and citizenship classes, maternity assistance for new mothers and connects them with medical assistance. The center is not a resettlement agency, who usually picks the refugees up at the airport, helps put their children into school and help them find apartments to live in, but instead are more of a social support center.
Refugees usually receive assistance from the resettlement agency ‘Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio Inc.” for about 6 months, but when the time frame is over they are usually referred to The Center for Refugee Services.
New refugees trying to assimilate to and understand American culture can find it difficult and can sometimes fall through the cracks of society. One of the biggest obstacles are language barriers.
“When I was in high school I wanted to get out,” said 21-year-old Iranian refugee Shadan Ebadiani. “I didn’t speak a lot of English and was struggling to communicate with others.”
Founder and board president Ria Baker, along with Costantino, were part of the same doctoral program in the field of counseling.
In 2008 Baker was hired to become a clinical case manager in local San Antonio school with Communities in Schools – a nationwide dropout prevention program.
Baker noticed there was a large refugee population in the San Antonio area.
“The more Ria worked with the kids they caused her to recognize that the parents don’t know how to help their children,” said Costantino.
Communities in Schools had a two-year grant designated to help refugee parents, but when the grant ended there was an ongoing need of services. That’s when Baker, Costantino and others decided to create the Center for Refugee Services.
The Center has grown over the years and has moved to a bigger location, which will enable the organization to provide more services.
“We’ll have enough space for private counseling, expand our emergency food pantry, more storage space and room for kids programming,” said Costantino. “We may have a nurse practitioner come on site and do blood pressure and basic health consultations.”
In her own words: Hear Margaret Constantino talk about the Center’s future plans.
One of the types of counseling provided is ‘culturally sensitive counseling,’ which helps clients see life from multiple perspectives outside of their cultural norms and introduces American culture and values.
“In some cultures it is considered normal to beat your wife and child,” said Costantino. “What we consider abusive can be considered normal and this is where we inform them that if they’re going to live in our culture that those practices can end up getting you in trouble with the law.”
Sometimes young refugees come to the United States and want to do and have the same things Americans do, which can cause them to lose their cultural identity. Ebadiani said he has lost some of his Iranian culture and his parents aren’t too fond of it.
“My parents want me to keep my Iranian culture, so I can teach my kids,” he said.
One the things Costantino is most proud of is the youth she sees succeed. The Center recently gave out 16 scholarships to graduating high school students. A Bhutan refugee from the Center was selected to receive The Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will pay for his tuition through a doctorate program.
Another success story is Ebadiani, who left Iran at the age of 14 and spent five months in Austria before coming to San Antonio. He is now attending San Antonio College and is studying political science because he had always wanted to become a lawyer, but is considering changing his major to something more art related, such as theater.
For more information about how to get involved with the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio you can call 210-949-0062, or you can visit them online at www.sarefugees.org