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Originally published Friday, May 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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City of Seattle urged to help foreign families

Too many Somali children are giving up and dropping out of school, lost in a system not equipped to address their needs, one refugee told...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Too many Somali children are giving up and dropping out of school, lost in a system not equipped to address their needs, one refugee told a Seattle City Council forum yesterday.

Other immigrants told of the cultural gulfs to some government services, about domestic violence within immigrant communities, about workplace discrimination sometimes born of cultural ignorance and a lack of affordable housing in the city.

"We're not asking for a handout," Jesus Rodriguez, with the Nonprofit Assistance Center, told a panel of City Council members and immigration advocates, "but help so we can blossom."

Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen organized the 90-minute forum, called The Changing Face of Seattle, as a way to better understand and address the issues facing the city's growing immigrant and refugee communities.

These newcomers, the chairman of the Housing, Human Service and Health Committee told the gathering of about 250, "are a benefit and blessing to the city."

For the first time at City Hall, the session was simultaneously translated into four languages — Spanish and Somali, and two languages spoken in Ethiopia, Tigrinya and Oromo. Panelist Pramila Jayapal, founder of Hate Free Zone Washington, which was formed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to help address concerns of the Muslim population, called this "a time of unprecedented immigration in our country."

She quoted 2000 census figures that show the U.S. foreign-born population grew by 57.4 percent during the 1990s. One in every two new workers is foreign born, she said, and one in five children is the child of an immigrant.

Seattle is no different from other U.S. cities in drawing huge waves of new immigrants.

Some 17 percent of the city's population — about 95,000 people — was born abroad, according to the census. Like in the rest of the country, the influx of newcomers has shifted from European countries to those across Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, Jayapal said.

But the census doesn't give the full picture, she said. It missed huge portions of the immigrant population, drastically undercounting Latinos, many of whom are undocumented and thus fearful of authorities.

"Immigration is incredibly important in revitalizing cities across the country," Jayapal told the group. "It's happening all over the world."

Immigrants are replacing an aging domestic labor force on factory floors, in restaurants and in corporate offices. And a void created by the ongoing flight of residents to the suburbs is also being filled by immigrants.

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For that reason, many cities are embracing their growing immigrant populations, putting into place policies and initiatives to ease their transition and establishing offices intended to meet their needs. Seattle has taken some steps too, including passing an access-to-service ordinance two years ago that prohibits city employees from inquiring about immigration status.

But diversity also brings challenges.

Of the nearly 45,000 students in Seattle Public Schools, a fourth are bilingual, many with limited English proficiency, said Jasmit Singh, director of Education for the Sikh. They are falling far short of state standards for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.

Abdurahman Jama, who heads the Refugees Social Development Resource Center, said the impact is especially hard in the Somali community, where students are dropping out of school at disturbing rates.

The absence of any kind of education system in war-torn Somalia means that children born in refugee camps are entering public schools here lacking a basic foundation to succeed.

"They are struggling," he said.

Singh said schools need to be aware of the changing demographics in their classrooms and make an effort to employ staff that reflects that change.

"The children of today are tomorrow's workers," he said.

Haddis Tadesse, senior policy adviser for Mayor Greg Nickels, said Nickels recognizes the role immigrants play in the community, as well as the challenges they bring. He said the city funds several programs to assist immigrants and refugees, including tutoring service and parenting help.

Jayapal checked off key areas the city should address, including understanding immigrant dynamics, bringing cultural and language sensitivity to service delivery, encouraging civic engagement and providing work-force support.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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