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Helping Asian Immigrants in Connecticut

Asian American families have the highest median income of any ethnic group, as well as the highest percentage of the population with a college degree. Thanks to statistics like those from the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans are often considered the "Model Minority", an example of what newcomers to this country can achieve. But for Asian immigrants who aren't a part of those statistics, assimilating into American culture is a daunting and even overwhelming prospect. A mental health agency in Hartford, Connecticut is trying to make that process easier, by helping immigrants from Southeast Asia who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

The picture of Asian Americans that many outside their community have is one of highly educated, successful immigrants.

"I have 11 children, 7 boys and 4 girls," says 72-year-old Ngo Pham, who came to the Unites States from Vietnam 12 years ago. Her family resembles the so-called model minority. Three of her children are in college, eight others have already graduated with engineering degrees. They and their father have learned English and become U.S. citizens. She's the only one who hasn't. Her family tells her she's too old to learn, but, speaking through an interpreter, Mrs. Pham says she isn't giving up on her dream.

"I wants to learn more English to become a U.S. citizen, because I went to take a test 3 times already, but she failed the test, so I wants to come here to learn more and become a U.S. citizen," she says.

'Here' is the office of Asian Family Services, the only agency in Connecticut that offers mental health and community education programs to meet the unique needs of the state's southeast Asian community. AFS says many of its clients grew up in rural areas where they had no formal education. That makes-most English as a Second Language classes, which assume a 6th grade reading level in a student's native tongue, too advanced for them. The agency, however, offers classes for learners at all levels…

Mrs. Pham attends one of the classes every week, and takes advantage of the agency's other community services. "

[I'm] very happy to come here. And also it's very helpful [that they provide] transportation, because all [my] family is working during the weekday. So if [I] wants to go here and there, this agency can call transportation for her or sometimes provide transportation to help [me] and do some interpreting. So [I] come here and join the Asian women's group too, so [I] meets a lot of friends.

Caseworkers at AFS say the language barrier makes immigrants feel isolated and depressed. And Some clients are struggling with serious mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that make their transition into American culture even more difficult.

AFS director Vichhyka Shelto came to the United States from Cambodia in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. After they were forced from power, she returned home to help a Buddhist nun counsel women who were traumatized under the regime.

Ms. Shelto says it's not easy for their clients to share personal matters, because it's taboo in Asian culture. But she says AFS is able to break through barriers that mainstream providers can't. "We are able to engage with them in their own language. We know the culture, including appropriate behavior," she says. "We bow to them, for example. We respect them. We respect their dignity. When they walk in here… physically as an Asian… it helps the client to engage and to trust."

Once the counselors are able to gain the clients' confidence, Ms. Shelto says they combine eastern and western methods of mental health treatment. "We have the psychologist. We have the clinical social worker. Then we have the case manager. Then we also respect client's beliefs," she says. "If our client believe that they suffer from physical or psychological problem that requires some spiritual healer to be involved, then we respect their value."

In 2001, the federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, awarded Asian Family Services a 3-year $1.2 million grant. It was one of 7 grants handed out nationwide to fund so-called "culturally competent" mental health services, treatment and support programs in keeping with a community's traditions, that give clients a feeling of safety and familiarity.

SAMHSA official Mark Webber says the grantees are doing a great job. But the Bush administration's approach to the issue has shifted. Because of that and budget cuts, he says SAMHSA won't be able to provide the last year of funding for the grantees. "The current philosophy is that any program should be culturally competent and sensitive to the racial and ethnic makeup of a community, so that it doesn't really make a lot of sense to fund a cultural competent initiative," he says. "Whereas we should be funding programs that are part of the fabric of a community, and provide culturally competent services to anyone who walks in that door."

But Asian Family Services says people without English language skills are too intimidated to even approach mainstream providers. The SAMHSA grant allowed AFS to expand services and increase its staff from 7 to 17. Director Vichhyka Shelto says if the agency can't replace those funds by September, she'll have to cut 10 staff members and the services they provide.

Wyns Lee, a fulltime volunteer, is concerned about the future of the agency. "I'm really worried for the client. Because with the funds that we have now, we still have a lot of clients on the waiting list. But in the future, if the funds are gone, with a lot of clients on the waiting list, what are we going to do for them?"

Mr. Lee, who was born in Vietnam, is the only interpreter at the agency who speaks English, Cantonese, and Vietnamese as well as a bit of some other Asian languages. He is already spread thin, translating, answering phones, and interpreting for clients and students in the English classes. And in the months ahead, Mr. Lee will have even more responsibilities. He and the rest of the Asian Family Services staff will have to divide their focus between serving the needs of their ever-expanding client list and finding new sources of funding.