Immigrants from work, self-worth through program

Helping immigrants with disabilities find meaningful employment is a focus for the Disabled Immigrant Association (DIA). The organization has exceeded its goals of helping clients find employment, despite a tough economy. DIA’s ambitious employment program will further expand through a new focus on mentoring for the organization.

DIA started in 2005 and has grown to include a cadre of programs including employment counseling, second language learning, and transportation to and from employment and medical appointments. A food shelf is operated in cooperation with Second Harvest Heartland. DIA also provides networking opportunities with a variety of organizations that provide support to people with disabilities.

DIA received a state grant for 2009 and 2010 in which an employment counselor was hired to find a job for 42 people each year. Hared Mah, a University of Minnesota graduate with a degree in economics, was hired as the DIA employment counselor. Mah has exceeded the annual goal of clients. In a presentation Oct. 24 at Richfield United Methodist Church, Mah said he is currently helping 60 people with employment.

A major struggle among immigrants with disabilities as to find and keep a job. Mah said convincing employers to hire immigrants with disabilities can be a tough sell.

Another challenge is low-paying jobs. DIA staff and volunteers have found that clients tend to seek employment in entry level positions but costs for daily living tend to be more than what is brought in financially. Participants need to earn enough to cover the basic costs of housing, food and clothing. Mah said another challenge is that some clients work while receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), so the earned income cannot lead to the loss of benefits.

Communication and language barriers have posed the greatest hurdle for immigrants. According to Mah all immigrants seeking employment need to have solid technical and communication skills not only to get hired but to keep their jobs. Mental illness and the shame that is associated with it is another major obstacle for immigrants. Mah said mental illness is a common hidden disability among his clients. In some cases, clients’ family members returned to Somalia because of their fear of medical practices and what they see as the ubiquitous distribution of drugs in the United States.

A program starting up at DIA to help as a link for people with disabilities is the mentoring of job-seekers. The range of support includes mentoring of immigrants with disabilities and their families. The mentors work with the DIA employment counselor. The establishment of a network of mentors will kick off next year.

The DIA mentoring program will bring together people with varied skills and talents to help employers and employees who live with disabilities work through possible access issues. The mentors will play a pivotal role in the job retention of participants by keeping track of the employment progress made by each employed immigrant with a disability. The mentor will support the employment counselor at DIA and provide an additional support outside the area of the level of expertise of the DIA employment counselor.

What are needed are mentors, positive role models, who fulfill an important need to guide immigrant people in meaningful and constructive ways. The co-coordinators of the DIA mentoring program will oversee and build a network with area colleges and university programs for students with disabilities to bring in mentors who will guide all participating immigrant family members.

DIA will also draw from its own membership list to find people who are capable to be mentors. The mentors will be trained to work with immigrant families with concerns about employment, training, and funds to pay for food and housing, access, communication, literacy, transportation and other needs.

To learn more about the Disabled Immigrant Association (DIA), contact DIA Executive Director Mahad Abdi, at mahad@dialink.org or call 612-619-5494.

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