This week I visited the Congolese Development Center in Lynn, Massachusetts. The Center occupies two offices on the fourth floor of 20 Wheeler Street, a floor buzzing with action, emotion, confusion.
The Center is one of seven partner agencies of the New American Center (NAC),
It joins the Bosnian Community Center for Resource Development, the Haitian-American Public Health Initiative, the Jewish Family & Children Services, the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center, the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts, and the Southern Sudanese Solidarity Organization on the busy floor. All seven agencies help run English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, literacy classes, job preparation help, and one-on-one support with new Americans and their families.
Viviane Kamba is the program manager at the Center. A Congolese immigrant herself, Kamba came to the United States a decade ago with her family. In 2006, Kamba and her husband, Eric, were approached by the New American Center. NAC needed an agency for the French-speaking African community, Kamba explained. The Center was founded with Viviane and her husband at the helm, with one medical volunteer and two case managers. Everyone was part time.
Despite the Congolese Development Center’s name, Kamba works with refugees and asylum-seekers from all French-speaking countries in Africa: Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Cameroon, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.
The Congolese Development Center, a nonprofit, helps refugee and asylum seekers from the period when the resettlement assistance ends until five years later. The Center’s intended role is to help the refugee and asylum seekers transition to normal life after their eight months of assistance from the resettlement agency, but Kamba says that her organization is usually forced to step in before the eight months are up.
“Each of them may have a different way of adjusting,” says Kamba, recognizing that some need more guidance than others. Some resettlement agencies say they cannot work with the new arrivals for the full eight months, due to a shortage of staff or lack of communication.
The Center only works with refugee status or asylum seekers, although immigrants occasionally qualify for support from Kamba and her coworkers. Kamba liaises with schools, city hall, and other local community agencies to advocate on behalf of her clients. “Most of the local agencies when they deal with an immigrant situation they usually call us and request our help,” she tells me.
In addition to these services, the Center offers a Gardening Project, where residents can garden in an assigned plot. The Center works with The Food Project to train participants in correct gardening techniques, and provides them with the land and the seeds for growing. The participants also take part in a cooking lesson and a field trip to a local grocery store where leaders demonstrate how to shop and stay healthy. In 2010, funding for Gardening Project ran out, but the program has continued despite the lack of money. This year, the Congolese Development Center is managing 12 plots.
This year, Kamba’s workload has increased. There are more refugees coming to Lynn, and Catholic Charities recently closed down its Lynn office. “All those who were served over there, they didn’t refer them anywhere. So they spontaneously came here,” Kamba says. “So that’s why the classes are a little bit overcrowded.”
Kamba says she works 20 hours a week, but is constantly on the phone or on her way to visit a client. She estimates that she is currently working with about 10 families. Her focus is on the medical aspects of her client’s life, making sure they have a primary care physician, assisting them in getting to their doctor on time and helping them understand their medical bills.
My discussion with Kamba exposed a lot of inadequacies – mostly due to lack of funding – in the resettlement process. The eight-month resettlement period, where a federally-funded agency such as the International Institute or Catholic Charities guides a newly-arrived immigrant, refugee or asylum-seeker through the process of establishing a life in America, ideally secures both housing and employment for the new American. “They’re supposed to have a place to stay. To be in a job search class… That is what resettlement is supposed to do. But unfortunately, it’s not done,” Kamba says.
About half of Kamba’s clients come to her from a resettlement agency with both a job and housing secured. But many times even the housing the agencies place the refugees in is unsustainable. Kamba says that often the resettlement agencies will place a refugee in an apartment with a rent of $1,000 or even $1,2000. The $1,200 rent is not something a refugee on a $400 monthly cash assistance program can afford, Kamba says.
And oftentimes, by the time the refugee is kicked out of the apartment for failing to pay rent, they are out of the resettlement agency’s hands.
Kamba and her colleagues at the New American Center face a daily battle against physical, financial, and emotional capacities. I will be returning to the Congolese Development Center in the coming weeks to learn more about Kamba’s work and the people that spent their lives helping these new Americans.