Yanat H. Chhith, the new Executive Director of Southeast Asian Refugee Community Home in Minneapolis. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (May 11, 2011) – Hoang K. Tran, Esq., founded Southeast Asian Refugee Community Home more than 18 years ago and has served as its only director until 2010. After two interim directors he is finally able to retire as Yanat H. Chhith recently stepped in as the new executive director.
Tran recruited two candidates to become a replacement director since 2009 – most recently Curtis J. Aljets, the retired District Director of Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) and a SEARCH board member who served as executive director from July 2010.
Chhith is not new to SEARCH. He is a founding board member and agreed to become its director when the board took over the organization with the departure of Alljets. He is also a Cambodian refugee who was schooled in France and the United States, and was once an official in the Cambodian government before the war and the Khmer Rouge. Most of his family went to France and he came to the United States where he worked at the Federal Bank of Minneapolis until retiring.
Chhith is also the First Vice President of the Cambodian Buddhist Society Inc. He is in charge of community relations for the organization that is largely responsible for building the Watt Munisotaram Temple in Hampton, Minn.
Chhith’s spouse works for Seagate and they have three grown children – including a physician and an attorney/CPA.
SEARCH is a professional and culturally appropriate mutual assistance association, one of a few for the Asian community in Minneapolis – that has two decades of service. Chhith comes in as SEARCH is attempting to purchase a new building and expand its mission to better reflect the new immigrant communities, both Asian and non-Asian, in the Twin Cities.
“The new building will be more of a cultural place,” said Chhith. “When we work with refugees we need to understand the issues that these people are facing before can help them.”
For now, the work remains focused on programs funded by foundation, and through county and city contracts including Employment, Provider Training, and Youth Education.
SEARCH has staff representing the communities it serves and who are also refugee immigrants themselves. They operate various types of training and assistance such as daycare training for immigrants has evolved into childcare provider training.
In the past Chhith worked more with numbers than as a staff manager. He said the difference now is that it is a new and exciting experience because everything is so new.
He compares his management style to that of a football team. He is the coach and says his role is to motivate and talk strategies but understands that it is his six fulltime and two part time staff that carries out the work.
“It is their game and not mine, and so they have to work hard to play well to win,” he said. “I cannot do their work, but without motivation they won’t work as well and the level of funding is based on our performance.”
Chhith brings analysis skills to update policies and keep up on trends in funding, the labor market, and at the same time assess the effectiveness of training and programs for an organization that must adjust to the emotional and transitional barriers of refugees.
The goals are with stabilizing the family first and then talking about training, job placement and a path toward self-sufficiency. There is a constant battle to fund training that is tailored the needs of industry, and to balance that with possibly working through skills barriers and ESL before placement to improve retention in upwardly mobile positions is a difficult challenge.
“We need to increase the record of performance and we need to place them on the job right away,” said Chhith. “So what is available to thee people right away after a few hours of training to get acquainted on the job requirement in these countries?”
Training may mean a two-hour introduction to specific job skills and communication; or it may mean long term vocational training that is tailored with the industry that wants its workers prepared.
Placement issues are even more challenging now that new Americans must compete with jobs that laid off Americans with good skills are taking. The alternative becomes temporary jobs which addresses short term needs only.
The foundation funded childcare provider training helps an new immigrant turn critical job skill into a vocation or business. At the same time they provide parents the confidence that their kids are being watched by people of their language and culture while they study ESL and find work.
“The program is designed to help women refugees who get here and are facing many barriers, language, low skills and having young children,” said Chhith. “This is how to help these people generate income without having to get a fulltime job outside and generate income from the home.”
He said that not all graduates follow through to become a licensed childcare provider. Some will prepare themselves to work for others, and at least one graduate used the training to become a teaching assistant in a public school.
“We see the need but at the same time there are limits in the funding,” Chhith said. “We want to do so many things.”
The two youth programs for grammar school and high school age groups is in partnership with Hennepin County in the schools, where they work with both at-risk kids and referrals from the juvenile justice system.
“The reason they come to us is that they are seeing the repeating issues with children of refugees,” he said.
The emotional or adjustment issues are sometimes family related, and there are language and cultural barriers in the school where they “don’t feel they can fit.” SEARCH steps in to help explain the importance of completing school and to pursue some sort of post secondary education. Then they help motivate them to that result with job counselors and other staff.
The staff has three to six months per case on average. They assess the issues with the student and parents – to see if the problem stems from a problem in the home or if its more related to barriers and academic performance issues in the school.
Chhith work for six years conducting qualitative and quantitative surveys as the coordinator of DREGAN (Diverse Racial Ethnic Groups and Nations), a research project to measurably reduce tobacco use in the state’s four primary Southeast Asian (Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian) communities, and the Latino communities.
It was a collaboration between Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Center for Tobacco Reduction and Health Improvement, and Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco (now Clearway).
As coordinator, Chhith was a link between researchers and the communities in the development of a summary report to better understand the relationship between culture and tobacco use in the social context of each community. He worked with professionally trained interviewers from each community and helped organized the quantitative results into data to used to design effective prevention and cessation programs in the future.
At SEARCH he said a good community analysis from surveys, data collection and analysis is one thing, but that you have to know what it all mean in terms of a true reflection of the community.
“You can’t look at data without knowing how we get that data and the real analysis of that data,” he said. “What does it mean? Where did it come from? Does the analysis reflect the community?”
SEARCH is located at 1113 E. Franklin Avenue, Suite 212, Minneapolis. Call 612-673-9388 or visit www.asian-search.org.