Aurora reaching out to refugee community
By Carlos Illescas , DenvorPost
AURORA — Aurora has become Colorado's "port of entry" for refugees escaping other countries — and with good reason.
Aurora is the most diverse community in the metro area, where the minority is now the majority.
Nearly 21 percent of Aurora's 335,000 residents were born in another country — the highest percentage in the Denver metro area. That's more than one in five people.
The Ethiopian community alone in the Aurora-Denver area in the eastern part of the metro area is an estimated 30,000 strong. Part of that number includes refugees.
About 1,800 refugees arrived in Colorado last year, and about 2,200 this year, with the majority landing initially in Aurora and many staying because of cheap rent and communities already in place.
To reach out to refugees, the city is considering creating an Immigrant Refugee Commission, giving the refugee community some voice in city affairs. An office could one day open and be staffed somewhere in the area, maybe at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library building along East Colfax Avenue, a place where refugees can reach out to the city on myriad issues, Aurora City Councilwoman Molly Markert said.
"We have ground to make up because we haven't done anything, maybe a little bit here and there," Markert said. "We have a lot of catching up to do."
The fact that city officials have acknowledged this need is a step forward, some say. Refugees from Bhutan, Ethiopia and other far-flung places began arriving in Aurora about six years ago. But it took time for the city and other agencies to coordinate and address their needs.
A little over a year ago, a clinic specifically for refugees moved from Denver to Aurora, a transition made not by accident but fueled by the reality of the numbers.
There are also talks of opening a welcome center for refugees at a facility in Aurora Public Schools, where 120 separate languages are spoken in the homes of students.
School district officials declined to comment on the welcome center, saying it was too early in the process.
The Immigrant Refugee Commission would be another tool for those arriving to Aurora. A city committee meeting on that issue was scheduled for this week but was canceled. Recommendations on how the city should move forward regarding that issue will be held next month. But it's clear the refugee commission is a priority.
Setu Nepal, a community navigator for the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora, works with newly arrived refugees. He knows all too well the issues that community faces.
Nepal, 50, arrived in Aurora as a refugee about 1½ years ago. A native of Bhutan, Nepal spent 22 years in refugee camps in Nepal. In fact, his four children — now adults — spent all of their childhoods bouncing around refugee camps there as he tried to return to his native country to no avail.
His wife and family lived in the refugee camps in crowded bamboo huts that often caught fire. There was never enough food for what the body needed, Nepal recalled.
When he saw no hope of returning to Bhutan, Nepal and has family applied for refugee status and were finally assigned to Colorado.
In August 2011, they arrived in Aurora and were put up in an apartment on Macon Street and lived on temporary assistance for three months. He then got a job at the Colorado African Organization before landing with the Asian Pacific Development Center, where he helps others who were in his position.
"I feel sometimes proud. I feel happy," Nepal said. "I am doing a service to the needy people."
Nurse Janice Ricci conducts a health screening visit with a new refugee family from Bhutan at the Colorado Refugee Wellness Center in Aurora. The family
Nurse Janice Ricci conducts a health screening visit with a new refugee family from Bhutan at the Colorado Refugee Wellness Center in Aurora. The family from left, Durgi Rai, 2-year-old Sikha Rai and dad Tula Rai moved to Aurora in September. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
The transition from a refugee camp to the United States isn't really as smooth as it was for Nepal. More likely, those who have spent significant time in the camps haven't received any type of medical attention, said Dr. Jamal Moloo of the Colorado Refugee Wellness Center in Aurora, which opened a little over a year ago.
Refugees, upon coming to this country, are screened for infectious and communicable diseases and are given needed vaccines. Many bring parasites in their bodies and must be treated. Many haven't had any health care in their lives, Moloo said, and certainly no preventive care.
"Some Somalis or Bhutanese, they truly haven't used a toilet let alone handing them prescriptions and having them fill it out," Moloo said.
The refugee clinic was moved from Denver to Aurora about 13 months ago. It partnered with the Metro Community Provider Network to serve refugees in the metro area. Denver Health still does lab work for the clinic.
Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, said moving the refugee clinic from Denver was a no-brainer.
"It made more sense to do it with MCPN in Aurora because of the higher number of refugees in the Aurora community," Wolk said.
Another effort the city has started is a multicultural neighborhood watch, said Aurora police Sgt. Todd Renner. Meetings are held, and law enforcement and others talk to the refugees about laws in this country, they discuss certain scenarios where they can be vulnerable and even role-play domestic-violence situations.
It's a slow but a worthwhile process, Renner said.
"The Bhutanese and Napalese, they come from countries where police are flat-out corrupt and kill people," he said. "We tell them they can trust their police here. I go out in community now and they know me from these meetings."
The neighborhood watch seems to be paying dividends. Since its implementation a few years ago, crime has gone down in neighborhoods with high immigrant populations, but calls for service have gone up, meaning there is more trust to reach out to law enforcement, said Jenny Pool-Radway of the Aurora Mental Health Center, which partners with police on program.
Pool-Radway said it's also important to educate the immigrants who are already living in the areas where refugees will live.
"People are shocked having new people," she said. "They don't understand them. It's very frustrating, so this is an important piece for integration."
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said city leaders have recognized the importance of integrating new people from different countries, but it can do only so much. Aurora, because it comprises three counties, must negotiate multiple government entities to provide service.
Still, Aurora must continue to reach out to new arrivals, he said. The city's success may depend on it, as the numbers of foreign-born residents will continue to grow.
"We can't do as much as maybe we'd like to do, but as we do with so many other things, we find ways to facilitate coordination and cooperation with government operations and community groups out there," Hogan said. "We find ways to make it work."
Earlier this year, the city held its first ever international flag ceremony at the Aurora Municipal Center, displaying the flags of 25 countries inside the lobby.
An enthusiastic crowd of about 200 gathered for the event, and many in attendance were from other countries.
"They were happy there was recognition," Hogan recalled. "They're weren't many white faces, there weren't very many longtime black faces, and there weren't very many longtime Hispanic faces.
"That ceremony was reflective of the change that is going on in Aurora."
Paul Stein, refugee coordinator for the state, said the refugee community started shifting from Denver to Aurora in 2010. He applauds the city's efforts in reaching out to them.
"The city realizes the benefits of working with refugees and immigrants," Stein said. "Thank you, Aurora."