CASA of Maryland
A Strong Voice
(c) 2004 Elmer Romero
Until 1985, Latino refugee and immigrant families settling in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC were a silent, underrepresented minority when it came to government and social services. Then, a group of Central American refugees joined with other members of their communities to found CASA of Maryland. Today, the voices of immigrant families, now numbering more than 200,000, resonate throughout the region.
At CASA, families find essential support, such as document translation, legal services, low-cost health care and referrals to government agencies and programs. CASA also helps parents find and train for jobs. "Before CASA, families felt hopeless," says Gustavo Torres, executive director. "They didn't know where to go for help. Today they do."
To create systemic change, CASA works to make life better by influencing policy and legislation affecting the communities it serves, which have expanded to include immigrants from Asia and Africa. CASA's Education and Leadership Academy offers citizenship classes, trains people in advocacy techniques, stresses the importance of civic participation and provides English language and literacy classes. "We want families to know their rights, but we also want them to know their responsibilities," says Torres. "There is no better way to make change happen."
"CASA invested in my family. Now, we want to help make life better for other immigrant families."
Herminia Servat, community member, recently elected to the CASA board of directors
CASA's next steps are to increase the community's ownership by becoming a membership organization and to add a credit union with financial services. Says Torres, "We want families to continue investing in themselves and the community as we enhance the services we provide."
Herminia Servat suffered acute culture shock when she came from Peru to the United States in 1999 to join her husband, who had lived in Maryland since immigrating 20 years earlier. "The food, the language, the fact that homes had to be locked up when you left them, it was all so different from my home," says Servat. "I felt a great sadness."
(c) 2004 Manuel Acevedo
Fortunately, Servat quickly found CASA. "From that point forward, the sadness lifted," Servat says. She started going to CASA to look for work, but also attended workshops on health and enrolled in English, computer and leadership courses. Through her involvement with CASA, she found a circle of friends. "I needed a sense of community and friendship around me," she says.
CASA helped Servat find a job that provided health insurance and paid enough for her to send money to Peru for her grandchildren's education. In time, Servat encouraged her husband, and later a daughter who immigrated, to become involved with CASA. Both did and found work as a result.
Today, Servat and her family encourage other immigrants to speak out on issues affecting their families, and they frequently travel to Annapolis to advocate for workers' rights. "There is great humanity at CASA," says Servat. "My work here brings me and my family tremendous satisfaction because it builds a community and helps make families stronger."
A Center for Change
Before CASA of Maryland opened the Center for Employment and Training in 1991, Latino refugees and immigrant workers had to stand on street corners and in parking lots waiting for employers to drive up and offer a day's work. Too frequently, the day laborers became targets for exploitation and abuse. They lacked the language skills, legal representation and documents needed to fight for their rights. CASA started the Center to help them find jobs with fair wages and health care and to protect their rights and dignity as workers.
"We speak for the families in our community. More importantly, we provide families with the tools to speak for themselves."
Today, the Center provides job training and matches as many workers as possible with jobs that suit their skills and experience. CASA recruits local businesses to help in the effort. Through this win/win partnership, CASA is able to place workers in fair workplaces while the companies know they are hiring qualified workers. In 2004, CASA helped place participants in 6,000 jobs.
For more information, see www.casademaryland.org.