MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Refugee organization evolves into service provider


February 16, 2018

It began with a civil war. In 1983, thousands of people fled military persecution in El Salvador and came to the United States. Once here, Salvadoran refugees realized they needed to secure their political asylum and help the numerous others also escaping from persecution to Los Angeles.

So they created the Central American Refugee Center, now called the Central American Resource Center, to safeguard the human rights of those fleeing and provide primary social services to immigrants.

In just a couple of years after its founding, the organization was already making big changes in the community of refugees. CARECEN played a central role in the 1985 American Baptist Church, a class action lawsuit settlement that gave Guatemalans and Salvadorans temporary protected status.

In time, CARECEN went from being a small grassroots organization to the largest Central American association in the country.

“[CARECEN eventually] developed into an organization open to all immigrant communities,” Martin Pineda, the nonprofit’s digital organizer, said. “Its focus now is on legal services to the community, education services and has an organizing department.”

The nonprofit offers free or low-cost legal services, citizenship classes, a College Head Start program, and much more.

“[The College Head Start program] helps high school students apply for college, like we provide information on different schools and the application process,” Pineda said. “The parent leadership program is for [parents] to find out what’s going on in their kids’ schools. That way parents make sure that the needs in schools are being fulfilled.”

Within the same youth center where the head start program resides is also the Queer Justice Youth Cohort, which intends to empower and validate the experiences of young people coming to terms with their identities.

And thanks to a partnership with Los Angeles City College, adults can take English classes on Saturdays and weekday evenings at the Parent Center. For those who want to further their education, online teacher-assisted classes are made possible by the University of Guadalajara and the Mexican Secretary of Education. Elementary and middle-school curriculums, as well as high school, graduate and computing classes are also offered.

Additionally, the organization assists legal residents become U.S. citizens with classes that teach them about U.S. government and history so that they can pass their citizenship exam. Several courses are offered, each one tailored to the level of English the individual speaks.

Then there is its off-site Day Labor Center in the heart of Westlake. The center, its website says, aims to “provide economic and social opportunities to day laborers and to develop economic self-sustainability strategies in the Los Angeles areas.”

The center is a place where employers can drop in and legally hire someone with standard pay, Pineda said.

“Many [undocumented] day laborers get wage theft, so they get support [at the Day Labor Center] like minimum wage,” Pineda said. “[Employers] are more likely to hire someone at the center than picking them off the street.”

But with its existing locations in urban areas like Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, employees of the organization know that there are areas with immigrant communities that are in desperate need of services and education opportunities.

“We want to reach other places where immigrants don’t have access to [social] services,” Pineda said. “There are many rural areas where there isn’t legal representation. We want to be at the fence of the immigrant community that’s always being targeted. Our goal is to continue to fight for amnesty for all immigrants.”

INFORMATION BOX

Executive Director: Martha Arevalo

Years in operation: 35

Annual budget: about $5.9 million

Number of employees: about 105

Location: 2845 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, 90005

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