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Southwest Kansas Loses One Of Its Last Community Centers For Refugees

Corinne Boyer
Kansas News Service
Students at the Neighborhood Learning Center in Garden City study for citizenship tests.

GARDEN CITY — Fartun Gelle is a Somalian refugee who lives near the Neighborhood Learning Center in Garden City, where she’s gone for help since she arrived in western Kansas five years ago.

The center is located in a brick apartment building in the northwest part of town, and refugees from Myanmar, Somalia and Ethiopia live within walking distance. Gelle doesn’t drive, and relies on the center’s community health workers to help translate at her sons’ medical appointments.

“I don’t have someone to help me,” Gelle said through Somali interpreter Ifrah Farah.

But the Neighborhood Learning Center, which serves an average of 30 people a day, will close Sunday due to funding issues. It also comes as federal immigration quotas have reduced the number of refugees being resettled in the U.S. and in Kansas.

While most services will be absorbed by the Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas about two miles away, there’s concern that refugees — particularly mothers like Gelle — won’t be able to access services across town.

“It's just not going to be as easily accessible. Cause many of the community members here do not drive, and especially the women,” said Birgit Lemke, the center’s program coordinator. She’s going to transition into a new position at Catholic Charities.

“A lot of times they have many children,” Lemke said, “and it's hard for them to use City Link (public transportation) to get around.”

Debbie Snapp, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, said she’s not concerned about accessibility.

“So far, if it’s any indication, people are not having any difficulty at all finding our office, ” Snapp said.

Ifrah Farah is a community health worker at the center and translates Somali. But Farah won’t have a job after Sunday, and she’s concerned that mothers won’t attend English-language classes at Catholic Charities if child care isn’t offered there like it was at the center.

“When mom is learning English, who will watch (the) children?” Farah said.

The Neighborhood Learning Center opened in 2013 and was funded through a violence prevention grant. Along with refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Laos and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the center also helped people from Myanmar. But in 2017, Rohnigya students stopped coming to the center due to the heightened conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in their home country.

The center received a two-year extension of funding in 2017, according to Callie Dyer, executive director of Finney County Community Health Coalition and LiveWell Finney County. That funding is not being renewed, and LiveWell couldn’t find money elsewhere.

“The need was not there to support more violence prevention,” Dyer said of the grant, pointing to arrest and prosecution records that showed a “reduction in violence.”

Catholic Charities is the lone office that resettles refugees in western Kansas, taking on some of the work in the wake of Garden City’s International Rescue Committee office closing in 2018. The organization has offices in Garden City, Dodge City and Great Bend.

Snapp said Catholic Charities resettled around 35 refugees in 2018, but added the numbers continue to decline.

“We've been told to expect somewhere between 25 and 50 a year,” Snapp said. “We're below that.”

Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her @Corinne_Boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.