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Through the Eyes of Women: Refugee Settlement in the U.S

Our first event for Thursday, March 5th, was the monthly Painesville/Mentor coffee contacts get-together where members of both chambers get to network and give a short "commercial" to all of the other attendees about who they are, what their businesses are all about, and what has been happening lately so we talked about the successful immigration seminar that Margaret W. Wong and Associates conducted at their offices on Chester Avenue on Saturday, February 28th. For this meeting, coffee contacts was conducted at the 100 year old mansion that was taken over and renovated by the Lake County Historical Society. Mr. Joss Strickland, the society's president, told us that this structure had been used for many things over its history including a jail. He said that the structure was finally closed in 2004 but the Lake County Historical Society obtained it in 2008 and made quite a few changes and came up with a place that we would like to go back and visit when we have time. Mr. Strickland talked about his 76 year-old organization that is devoted to preserving the history of Lake County and its genealogy. It offers a pioneer school for young people as well as adult classes. He grinned when he said that some people say that this building was haunted and everyone laughed when our friend Pastor Jeff Sivyer of the Grove Church offered to perform an exorcism for them if need be.

This gathering was very well attended and we met people who were attending a chamber event for the first time including Ms. Beth Anderson of "Bubbles and Swirls" which provides entertainment for birthday parties. Ms. Anderson told us that they do entertain sometimes at international parties so we exchanged contact information. We also spoke to a businessman who told us that a few years ago he employed a young man who was here from Jamaica on a student visa that was eventually terminated so he had to return to home even though he was a good worker and would have preferred to immigrate to the United States. The businessman we were talking to said that he wished that he had known about us back then.

Thursday afternoon we went to the Tinkham Veale University Center at CWRU for a program titled "Through the Eyes of Women: Refugee Settlement in the U.S" which was coordinated by Ms. Jessica McRitchie from the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at CWRU. The motivation for this program was that March 8th is International Women's Day and 80% of refugees are women and children but let it be mentioned that only unfortunately only 10% of these women fit the tight standard of being women and girls at risk.

Today's event consisted of a presentation from Ms. Danielle Drake, Resettlement Support and Resource Specialist from US Together whose purpose is "to coordinate, organize, and initiate services to immigrants and refugees through education, advocacy, support services, information, referrals, and networking opportunities in order to strengthen the community that we live in" and we know that immigrants/refugees can be a wonderful asset to wherever they live. In fact, Ms. Drake reviewed statistics that showed that the ratio of the money that the government provides for refugee assistance and the amount of money that these refugees put back into the economy is about 1 to 10. Another interesting item is that an immigrant is 23% more likely to start a business than a person who is born in the United States. According to the latest statistics, there are 40 businesses in Cleveland that were started by immigrants and these businesses employ approximately 150 people.

Accompanying Ms. Drake were Ms. Tila Adhikazi and Ms. Saraswati Pradham who are both Bhutanese refugees who fled their homeland, which was ravaged by civil war, to live for 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before they immigrated to the United States five years ago. Ms. Adhikazi and Ms. Pradham talked about what it was like to live in the camp in which conditions were pretty deplorable and how happy they were to be able to come to the United States and take advantage of its opportunities.

The rest of the presentation concerned what could be done to assist refugees because, as Ms. Drake said, the resources for refugee resettlement are quite limited and US Together is always applying for various grants. We were fortunate to have Ms. Carola Drosdeck, Vice President of the Nepal Orphans Home with us today because she talked about how she started a sewing class which was tremendously popular amongst refugee women and lead to them making connections that would help them to move forward.

Both Ms. Drake and Ms. Drosdeck emphasized the need for mentorship which might include teaching a refugee how to clip coupons to save money, understand the deductions on a paycheck, or accompany them to a parent teacher conference. When asked about the kind of assistance they would like to have, Ms. Adhikazi and Ms. Pradham said that they would like to see summer classes for children so that they would not forget what they learned during the school year. Then Ms. Drake talked about how she put together a summer camp last year for 14 young people ages 6 to 14 for 6 weeks. This was not an easy thing to do and it probably would not have succeeded if she had not had an intern working with her who had a minivan so that that participants could be picked up and dropped off.

We were touched when Ms. Drosdeck reminded us that Ms. Adhikazi and Ms. Pradham will soon complete the process to become United States citizens and that this will be the first time in their lives that they have been citizens of any country. Ms. Drosdeck went on to say that the refugee community in Cleveland is quite an invisible community but also quite a large one because we take in 600 refugees a year. She said that people like Ms. Adhikazi and Ms. Pradham had "amazing success stories" and such people were her heroes. What's more, Ms. Drosdeck said that "they are becoming leaders in their community and taking their families with them" and she, Ms. Drosdeck, was proud to help them "in any small way" that she could.

Right after we left CWRU we headed for Toledo to attend a retirement party at the Toledo Club for Magistrate Judge Vernelis K. Armstrong of the U.S. District of Toledo who was first appointed to the bench in 1994 after serving as an assistant U.S. Attorney for 15 years. Judge Armstrong is an old friend of Ms. Margaret W. Wong's but unfortunately, as much as she wanted to, Ms. Wong couldn't attend the party herself so she directed us to go and extend her congratulations and best wishes to her old friend. One of the judge's sons, Dr. Anthony Armstrong described his mother as being a very kind and very humble person and that's exactly how she impressed us and it seemed that every one of the two hundred people who turned out for this gathering felt the same way; in fact you could feel the love that was in the air for this fine individual.

The first person that we spoke to was Ms. Carol Dunn who described herself as being like a member of the judge's family and from the way Judge Armstrong embraced her, we are sure this is true. Ms. Dunn told us that she was present when Judge Armstrong was first sworn in and described her as "a very gracious woman worthy of all the praise that she can get."

We also met Ms. Cherrefe A. Kadri, who is the President of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo and a good friend of our good friend, Ms. Julia Shearson of CAIR. Ms. Kadri promised to put us on the mailing list for events taking place at the Islamic Center and we certainly look forward to attending. Another distinguished person that we spoke with was Judge C. Allen McConnell who used to attend the naturalization ceremonies where Judge Armstrong swore in new United States citizens.

Towards the end of the party, U.S. District Court Judges Jack Zouhary and Solomon Oliver, Jr. paid tribute to Judge Armstrong. Judge Oliver said that she was a "beacon in the community" and when on to quote the late poet Maya Angelou who said that "if you get, give. If you learn, teach" and went on to say that Judge Armstrong is a person who is constantly "giving" and "teaching".

Of course, Judge Armstrong, herself, was called upon to speak. She said that she loved her job so much that it never seemed like she was really working and concluded by saying to all of us, "thank you for joy and happiness and for sharing this very special day with me."

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