Hoang K. Tran, Esq., left, president and executive director, Southeast Asian Refugee Community Home, and Curtis J. Aljets, former INS District Director, SEARCH board member and incoming executive director. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (July 26, 2010) – Curtis J. Aljets will be the new Executive Director of Southeast Asian Refugee Community Home, a professional and culturally appropriate mutual assistance association that is nearing its second decade of service.
Aljets, a former District Director of Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) who retired almost seven years ago, said the experience has instilled a sense of obligation to the community and to the country.
Working to assist people that often leave nationality, culture and language behind to come to the United States is a great sacrifice. Aljets said SEARCH allows an opportunity to work on assimilation issues that he felt was not the appropriate or efficient role of the government.
Government can assist, he added, but it is the non governmental organizations that have the role of getting people settled, enrolling them in programs and preparing them for citizenship.
Aljets brings more than 30 years of federal government management and experience. He accepted an invitation to join the SEARCH board saying he appreciated the “lofty and honorable goals” of SEARCH and its “efficient service as a community organization.”
“Because I have that background and I know what immigrants have gone through, I’ve felt compelled to render assistance there where I can because I know the government doesn’t do that. I don’t think it’s their role,” said Aljets.
Hoang K. Tran, an immigration attorney and founding president of SEARCH, has served as its director for all of its 18 years. He has twice tried to recruit new director candidates in the past two years, most recently, Vina Kay, an attorney, writer and immigrant advocate, came in as vice president late last year.
Tran described the candidates as “very capable, but their leadership styles did not work with this organization.” Not wanting to influence a decision for another director, Tran said he recommended the board ask Aljets to serve in a temporary capacity during time of transition because of his unique qualifications and knowledge of the organization.
“His mission is not only of transition, it is to bring the organization to a higher degree,” said Tran. “I believe that Mr. Aljets, not only as a board member who understands completely the activities of the organization, but he has shown that he can lead effectively on behalf of SEARCH.”
Tran will volunteer without for the board but says it is important not to interfere with staff operations once he has stepped down. He would still want serve as an advisor volunteer together with fellow founding board members, Nghi Huynh, Trin Nguyen, Yanatt Chhith and Irene Long.
“In the next five years what the board and I hope is that we will see this organization go beyond the traditional way,” said Tran. “Truly, it is not easy, but Mr. Aljets is not too young, or too old, and he knew the organization well, and so that is the reason why we selected him.”
Aljets agreed to serve until a new director is identified or for three years. In the meantime he will oversee the most significant changes of the organization in over a decade.
They are already starting a capital campaign for a new building. It makes sense financially, said Aljets, given the amount they spend per square foot on rent that could be applied to a mortgage and helped along with leasing tenant organizations.
“It would give us flexibility in being able to expand in different areas,” he added.
The board has invited key community leaders to join them for a five-year plan strategy session over a September weekend in northern Minnesota. The meeting may result in a new name such as “Refugee Community Center” to represent the growing spectrum of clientele from non-Asian countries and to reflect a broadening mission and purpose.
“I think it will be really important to me once the strategic planning seminar takes place to come back and communicate that message to the people here, to kind of give that general direction of which way we are going and then ensure that people are taking steps to accomplish those goals,” said Aljets.
SEARCH is in sound shape financially, he added, and credits Tran and the board for responsible growth and thriftiness. Aljets said his mandate is to grow the organization in terms of expanding clientele, programs and services designed to address barriers to integrating into employment, self-sufficiency and civic life.
The types of training and assistance change over time with economic conditions and they want to keep it effective and moving. He said innovative job training programs in the past include daycare training for immigrants, which gives parents the confidence that their kids are being watch by people not only of their language and culture but with adequate training that is in turn critical job skill for daycare workers.
Another area of success he said is the computer training work to prepare people to go into good entry level jobs in businesses.
Another area aljets said he would work on is to continue working with foundations and organizations that are not set up like SEARCH, to bring unique skills and perspectives to immigrant needs and how organizations can fill the gaps.
In the past, he said collaborations have led to the Immigrant Roundtable, which in turn developed an immigrant’s guide in various languages. The guide offers information developed from feedback on how to prepare and enroll kids for school, to taxes and basic immigration information.
“That is I think an area where nonprofits excel at,” he said. “They can recognize; they can talk to the immigrants; they can find out what’s needed, and render the product that the immigrant needs much more efficiently, and much more culturally sensitive without a lot of governmental red-tape and stuff to slow it up.”
Aljets was raised in North Dakota, and served a several INS regional offices around the country, concluding his career as director of the Twin Cities office. Now settled in Eagan for over a decade, he said it is a joyful but busy retirement.
He jogs several miles each morning and is often babysitting some of his nine grandchildren. He also volunteers for his church and serves on the Eagan Airport Relations Commission.
SEARCH is located at 1113 E. Franklin Avenue, Suite 212, Minneapolis. Call 612-673-9388 or visit www.asian-search.org.