Immigrant Families Initiative helps with various needs

COLUMBIA—Three neighborhoods in Beaufort County that are home to mostly Hispanic immigrants are part of Narenda Sharma’s ongoing efforts to help poor families leave poverty behind.

He is founder and director of the Neighborhood Outreach Connec­tion, a non-profit organization that helps low-income people around the Hilton Head and Beaufort areas.

“We see our mission as fighting poverty by empowering individual families to work for the American dream,” he said. “We teach people to fish, as they say, and through that we create independence and self-reliance and ultimately suc­cess.”

This year, Sharma’s organization was one of 10 in the state that ben­efited from grant money provided by the Immigrant Families Initia­tive, a program launched in 2014 by the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina.

The program provides grants that help non-profits like Sharma’s that work with immigrants and refugees. Since it launched, the initiative has provided more than $400,000 to help immigrants with basic needs such as food and housing, educa­tion, access to health care, legal services and community empowerment.

Sharma said the money that Neighborhood Outreach re­ceived this year will help with everything from English and financial literacy classes to health screenings and after-school pro­grams for residents in those three neighborhoods.

That is exactly the kind of assis­tance that organizers hoped to fund when the program was launched three years ago, said Stephanie Cooper-Lewter, vice president of initiatives and public policy for the Sisters of Charity Foundation and leader of the Im­migrant Families Initiative, which was started as a result of research and discussions with people working at the grassroots level with immigrants in this state.

Statistics show that im­migrants make up 5 percent of South Carolina’s population, with the majority com­ing from Latin America, followed by Asia and Europe. For many of these families, a little assistance can go a long way in helping them become self-sufficient.

Confusion and fear over legal issues is one of the main obstacles many newcomers face as they try to begin new lives in the United States. Money from the initiative also provides help for immigrant families trying to navigate the of­ten confusing pathways of the U.S. legal system.

A grant this year helped Catholic Charities hire an additional attor­ney to work with clients in Mount Pleasant, according to Emily Guerrero, director of immigration services for Catholic Charities.

“The demand for our services is extremely high, so the grant money has been very helpful to us,” Guer­rero said. “The new attorney is one of four around the state who help people apply for permanent residency, citizenship, and work permits, and she also helps with educating the immigrant commu­nity on these issues.”

Another group that has benefited is Lutheran Services of the Caro­linas, which has helped resettle refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Honduras, El Salvador, Eritrea, and Burma in South Carolina.

They have also helped resettle special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan and Iraq — people who face persecution and danger because they previously worked with U.S. forces in those countries.

Most of the refugees live in Co­lumbia and Charleston.

Lutheran Services used grant money from the initiative this year to hire additional employees, who in turn have worked with busi­nesses to encourage them to hire the new refugees.

“We have a very small team, and that additional staff is able to help us reach out to prospective employ­ers,” said Bedrija Jazic, director of refugee services with the Lutheran group.

“Ninety-five percent of the refu­gees we worked with in the past year were employed within their first six months of arriving,” she continued. “And that is impor­tant because gainful employment enables them to take care of them­selves and their families, to form relationships in the community and not depend on charity.”

Photo provided by Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina: A volunteer with the Neighborhood Outreach Connec­tion, a non-profit organization that helps low-income people around the Hilton Head and Beaufort areas, works with students in the after-school program.