Mayor Murray proposes rollout of services for immigrant and refugee empowerment

Mayor Murray announced OIRA initiatives yesterday morning at City Hall, with new OIRA director Cuc Vu, Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim (far right) and members of the Seattle Immigrant and Refugee Commission looking on.
Mayor Murray announced OIRA initiatives yesterday morning, with new OIRA Director Cuc Vu (next to podium), Communications Director Jeff Reading, Chief of Staff Chris Gregorich, Press Secretary Jason Kelly,  Community Relations Manager Mohamed Sheik Hassan, Advanced Outreach Manager Habtamu Abdi and Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim (far right) looking on. (Photo by Ivonne Rivera Martinez/City of Seattle)

Yesterday morning, Mayor Ed Murray announced $680,000 of new proposed investments to support Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities, which now make up every one in five city residents. This will be part of the total $1.48 million proposed for the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), which is up for a city council review on Monday.

With a host of programs running or in the works through OIRA’s expansion, the additional funding will support job training combined with language education, citizenship support, and better engagement of immigrants and refugees in public safety initiatives.

The city also rolled out on Sept 6th the nation’s first Refugee Women’s Institute of its kind, bringing together 20 refugee women and pairing them with female officer mentors from the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

The eight weeks of Saturday morning sessions are intended to help the participants “overcome fear and mistrust that often acts as a barrier to community participation.”

The program, developed by Sahar Fathi, OIRA policy, programs and strategy lead, in collaboration with the Seattle Immigrant and Refugee Commission, was created in response to concerns raised during the city’s Safe Communities discussions in 2012, which included both community members and their precinct’s SPD officers.

OIRA program and policy lead Sahar Fathi.
OIRA program and policy lead Sahar Fathi.

“I think they’re already starting to trust each other a little bit,” Fathi says, reflecting on the first session.  “One [participant] sat down with an officer, and they started talking about their lives. … And she said, ‘You know, I took three busses to get here this morning.’ It took her an hour and a half for her to get there on time on a Saturday morning, and that totally blew the officer away.”

The Mayor’s Office also describes the program as a way to “build a grassroots network of emerging refugee leaders, while increasing the cultural competency of the female officers who participate.”

But ultimately, the success of this $100,000 pilot program will rest in the hands of the emerging refugee leaders participating in it.

“Every single person has already been through a 30-minute intake of [program evaluation and survey] questions,” says Fathi. “They will go through it again at four weeks, again at eight weeks, and again, 11 months later.”

But what would program success actually look like after eight weeks?

“If they feel comfortable calling [their mentor officer] and saying ‘I have a problem in this community,’ that will sort of be the ultimate sign of success.”

Fathi has a good feeling about this.

“Some of our East African women have said that it’s really great to see the officers like this, without their uniforms, because now they know who they are, and they’re not scared anymore.”

Another woman, an Iranian refugee who spoke to Fathi in Farsi, made another stunning realization.

“She said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a police officer.’ I was like, ‘Really?!’ Because she’s only been in this country for six months, so it was a pretty amazing perspective.”

While vocational aspirations are spawned early, many immigrant women have already applied their skills as program interpreters,  with two required for each language group including more than one participant.

“They are new [immigrant] interpreters who maybe have been at a few community events, but have not been formally registered with the city before,” Fathi explains, emphasizing the power of a familiar face. “So we’re trying to build up the women minority business side of how we’re doing business with these community members, and bringing them into city contracting.”

Will this vocational momentum eventually flow into SPD jobs and other city work?

The new boss in town, OIRA director Cuc Vu. (City photo)
The new boss in town, OIRA director Cuc Vu. (City photo)

Fathi says no official discussions have indicated this yet. In reality, the first step is always language proficiency.

“We already have women who want to be officers, and I think the extent that we can be supportive is in how they learn English and get to an actual point where they can help others.”

Meanwhile, other programs benefiting from OIRA expansion will tackle some of the basic barriers to full civic participation.

For 80 participating in Ready for Work, another program Mayor Murray announced yesterday, language proficiency will be built into the job training program, alongside the acquisition of computer skills with the help of Seattle’s community colleges and nonprofit partners.

With a new emphasis on “integrating” immigrants into Seattle life, Mayor Murray also proposes a city Citizen Day and Constitution Day, as well as moving the New Citizens program from the Human Services Department to OIRA “to amplify impact and reach.”

“The reason why the New Citizenship program is being proposed to be part of our office is because we have a vision where we believe that if you leverage city departments, ethnic media and community-based organizations and other stakeholders, we can create a more robust program,” says OIRA Director Cuc Vu.

With 68,000 Seattle immigrants still eligible for naturalization, often the greatest barrier is cost, she says. The filing fee for a citizenship application is $680.

“And you’re looking at several members of a family, so that could be several thousand dollars for one household.”

Since citizenship is a luxury for these families, the city is forced to change its perspective on civic engagement.

“Sometimes, you get so into the day to day needs of life, of putting food on the table, and having a roof over your head, etc., citizenship can be No. 20 on the list of priorities that you have, ” Vu says. “… So how can we get people to participate? …. Well, one of the ways we could do it is to address the basic needs that people have every day, which is a job, transportation and housing, etc. If you don’t have to worry about those things, then we can have a conversation about voting and civic engagement.”