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Losing the funding game: African refugee groups are scrapping for resources in San Diego. What does their situation say about immigrant communities and the foundation world? (To the Point).

When Dr. Melake Ghebrehiwet arrived in San Diego in 1975, he was one of six Eritreans in the county. Today, the Eritrean Community Services of San Diego, which he helped found in 1985, has a membership of 150 families and serves an Eritrean community of up to 700. But the group still operates as a volunteer-run mutual assistance association with very little staff capacity. They rent out a Methodist church to offer an Eritrean Orthodox service a few times a month, and managed to get a grant to rent an office space and hire a health consultant. That funding, however, recently ran out.

Eritrean Community Services is typical of African refugee and immigrant groups in San Diego County, designated one of about 10 "refugee impacted counties" in California by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. There are few, if any, hired staff, the budget is small, and the organization offers basic, survival-level services for their communities. These small groups attempt to provide services that alleviate the major difficulties facing African refugees--lack of affordable housing, severe unemployment, access to health and social services, all exacerbated by language and cultural barriers.

Despite the urgent needs of African refugees in San Diego County--the destination site of over 2,000 African refugees between 1997 and 2001, or 62.7 percent of the total number of African refugees resettled in California in that time period--small organizations serving these communities are struggling for resources. Their difficulties illuminate the challenges immigrant and refugee organizations face in navigating a funding world ill-equipped to recognize and address their communities' needs.

Destination: San Diego

Refugees have been coming to San Diego since Camp Pendleton was designated a destination site for Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, stimulating the development of resettlement agencies and systems that remained in place for subsequent groups of refugees. San Diego is home to by far the greatest number of African refugees and immigrants in California.

The situation for African refugee and immigrant communities in San Diego is representative of African communities across the country. One executive director of an Eritrean group in Chicago described the same urgent needs and difficulties facing the African communities there. Topping the list is access to resources and the sense that funders seem to overlook the African community organizations, an issue that funders and African groups in Chicago have recently begun to address in a new initiative.

"The focus for Africans, for both refugees and immigrants, is not on anyone's radar screen, observes Lawrence Benito, a program coordinator in the Chicago office of Grantmakers Concerned about Immigrants and Refugees.

Compounding the problem of funding is that foundations are less likely to provide grants to organizations controlled by members of a community in need of help.

"There's still a trust issue," says Joni Craig, executive director of the San Diego-based Foundation for Change. "There ate foundations that don't feel comfortable putting money and power in the hands of people affected by the problem--they are not ready to let go of that control, and would rather see someone they know and trust."

In San Diego's conservative environment, she adds, "It doesn't work to threaten, to go to a mainstream funder and say [the foundation is] not making real change or supporting the community. You can't make an outcry, you have to work with the system."

Undermined by Competition

What becomes immediately apparent to an observer is that the competition among African refugee and immigrant groups in San Diego. is fierce.

"There is a lot of in-fighting and everyone is looking out for themselves," says Gebaynesh Gashaw-Gant, the director of Project ESSEA (Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea in Africa), which addresses mental health needs and is one of the few African organizations that has managed to secure funding. "Organizations multiply and new ones are created every year, and the ones who are funded don't want to share, and they say that they are the only one."

By all accounts, there are between 25 to 45 small African refugee and immigrant groups in San Diego, many of them representing the same African nation or ethnicity.

"Many of these are fly-by-night organizations," says Gashaw-Gant. "They call themselves a nonprofit, but then you look more closely and see it's a one-man operation with family members on the board."

Sinay, who has directed The San Diego Foundation's Intergroup Relations Project--a three-year project to encourage relationship-building between immigrant communities and "more established neighbors"--believes that African groups are partially responsible for their difficulty with funding. "One of their weaknesses is that they allow funders to say no," she says. "Whenever there's funding available, there's bickering among the groups, which makes city council members say, 'If they can't figure out their needs as a community, we won't give funds to any of them.'"

Tsehaye Teferra, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc., which receives funds to resettle refugees, takes issue with this view. "There are always going to be differences and competition among African communities, and foundations should not look at it as something unusual. It is natural. They should be willing to fund groups on their individual merits."

Funders focus on collaboratives for African refugee and immigrant groups. It is common knowledge among African communities that funding proposals from individual organizations do not stand a chance. Indeed, all the major grants awarded to African refugee and immigrant groups in the last few years were awarded only to collaboratives.

But Teferra argues that partnerships forced onto groups are not viable.

"You cannot impose coalition building. Groups will coalesce around a fund, but as soon as the funding is not there, the collaborative collapses because there was no need from within the community itself for that collaborative."

Funders push for collaboratives so hard, say Teferra and others, because they do not really recognize or appreciate the diversity within the African refugee and immigrant communities. An oft-repeated phrase by African refugee and immigrant organizations is that Africa is a continent, not a country.

"People think Africa is one country where everyone knows one another," says Teferra. With over 40 different nations sending refugees, there are reasons for the conflicts among groups that stem from recent histories of war and conflict back home. Funders need to appreciate these differences, he says, rather than expect African groups to "get over" their issues. Often, funders tend to dimiss these tensions as petty, even childlike, bickering.

Get Rich Quick--Start an MAA

More troubling than the tendency to lump together all African ethnicities and nationalities, however, is the clear development of negative attitudes on the part of funders--and some African groups themselves--towards African refugee and immigrant mutual assistance associations (MAAs). One popular theory has African refugees regularly starting up nonprofits as a kind of get-rich-quick scheme.

"When Latinos come to the U.S., they work in the service industry. When Asians and Middle Easterners do, they start their own businesses. And when Africans come here, they start nonprofits," says one San Diego funder dryly.

Gasaw-Gant attributes the proliferation of organizations to cultural norms. "It's something brought from back home. Everyone is saying, 'I'm not going to be seen as the lesser of anyone else here,' and everyone is trying to assert themselves."

This perception gets worse when compounded with the accusation that African MAAs don't understand the concept of work. "They've learned to think it's quick money, but they don't necessarily attach money with getting things done," says Sinay.

Gail Souare of the Alliance Healthcare Foundation, which funded both Project ESSEA and an African health collaborative, is of a similar opinion. "When you have a nonprofit in a developing country," she explains, "you're pretty much set with a job for life with pay. And here you have to do the work."

Souare describes her experience whittling down the initial turnout of about 40 African groups interested in an AHF grant to five groups that ended up receiving the funds and technical assistance for the health collaborative. "The groups would just sit and go as they please and not really produce. It was a challenge for them to realize it really involved work, not just a salary."

African leaders, however, bristle at the insinuation that community members have no real desire to strengthen their communities. Tsehaye Teferra says he is "appalled" at the kinds of stereotypes employed by funders regarding African groups.

Walter Lam, the executive director of the Alliance for African Assistance, a resettlement agency and MAA in. San Diego, and an affiliate of Teferra's ECDC, is also incensed by some of the attitudes he has observed. "There is still recolonization out there," he says. "The foundations are destroying our community with divide and rule tactics."

Looking Good on Paper

Some African MAAs do have access to funding through government agencies. The budget for the Alliance for African Assistance, which is basically a resettlement agency, comes from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and county funding. Horn of Africa joined a collaborative with the International Rescue Committee, an international refugee resettlement agency, to win a county Refugee Employment Services contract as well as the AHF-funded health collaborative, and gets about half of its budget from the county and the other half from foundation grants. The small Somali organization no longer requires its members to pay dues. Horn of Africa's situation as an MAA, however, is rare.

San Diego County gives out one major, three-year contract for Refugee Employment Services, but this contract has almost always gone to the larger agencies that do resettlement work. According to Sinay, there's no bidding process for the grant.

Bryan Nazareth, who works for the San Diego County Refugee Services program, denies that there is no bidding process. Nazareth does admit, though, that the criteria for a successful bid include a solid history with the county--meaning the organization has received county funds before--and a strong, well-written proposal, a skill that many African MAAs, struggling just to provide basic services, have not mastered.

Gashaw-Gant blames some funders, particularly the county, for putting too much emphasis on how good an organization looks on paper. "Funders need to do the research and see what groups are out there and which ones are known and trusted in the community. Just because a group looks good on paper doesn't mean it is a true representative of the community."

Some African groups say it is their own fault they have not been successful with funders.

"We are to blame," says Ghebrehiwet of Eritrean Community Services, who points out that his group did not rake the initiative to go to the funders on its own. "The effort didn't come from us, we really didn't work for it."

ECDC's Teferra, on the other hand, implicates foundations in employing what he sees as inherently biased criteria as well.

"Worst of all is the foundation world. In most parts of the country, African groups have no access to foundation resources. Teferra adds that foundations do not fund African groups because there is a lack of awareness of African communities, and even when that awareness does exist, funders argue that the African refugee and immigrant groups do not have the capacity to serve their communities.

Some foundations, such as Alliance Healthcare Foundation, have recognized the need for capacity building and have provided members of the African United Health Partners collaborative with technical assistance and a series of trainings and consultants. Abdi Mohamoud, the executive director of Horn of Africa, praises AHF for its work with the collaborative.

"AHF was willing to work with the community through the good times and bad times," says Mohamoud. "Whenever internal conflicts with the community came up, and in one instance an organization that did not receive funding criticized the foundation at a public forum--these are the times that the foundation itself could have said we don't have to put up with this. But AHF knew that the work was important and stuck with us."

Stuck with Services

Because the social services system is so threadbare, African MAAs are stuck picking up the slack where government and resettlement agencies fall short. Focused almost entirely on meeting basic needs, the African groups have not been able to consider advocacy and organizing in their communities. While some express a desire to eventually work towards more systemic change, such goals are currently off the radar.

"Community-based organizations are constantly struggling to fill the holes that the government isn't interested in filling," says Donald Cohen, long-time labor organizer and the executive director of the Center for Policy Initiatives, a local economic justice organization. "They shouldn't have to duplicate social services. These systems should be in place so that the CBOs can focus on structural change."

While there are serious issues left to resolve within the African refugee and immigrant communities and the funding world, for some the outlook is getting brighter. For one thing, visibility for African refugees and immigrants is improving. Foundations seem to be more aware of refugee populations, and AHF has developed a strong relationship with the members of its health collaborative. The funding for that collaborative has ended now, however, and the groups will need to find new sources of funding.

No one person can speak for the entirety of the African communities in San Diego, but it is clear that some change has to happen.

Melake Ghebrehiwet believes the answer lies in organizations such as Project ESSEA. "We are looking at that group as a model for Africans to get together. We need to keep our identities, that's for sure, but we need to work together to advance the cause of everybody."

Samantha Chanse works with Kearny Street Workshop and the Asian American Theater Company.
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Author:Chanse, Samantha
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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