February 2013

Vol. 5 Issue 1 

Latest news and stories 
In This Issue
Eritrea Refugee Stories
Introducing ILS
Moldovan Refugee Now Business Owner

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Current Events

Opening Doors Welcomes New Staff!


Opening Doors is pleased to welcome two new staff members to our team.


David Dauer joined us in early January as the Program Manager for Refugee Resettlement and RHEAP. He comes to ODI with ten years' experience in the field of international development, including 5 years with the Peace Corps and 2 years managing a refugee employment program with the International Rescue Committee. He has also lived and worked overseas in Ethiopia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Tonga. We are excited to have him on board and look forward to working with him.


We are also happy to welcome Carolina Estrada who is working with our Survivors of Trafficking Program as a Case Manager. She has extensive work experience, including case management, family law, and two years in the Peace Corps. Her arrival signals the growth of our Survivors of Trafficking Program, and we are fortunate to have someone with such a wide array of perspectives joining our team at such a crucial juncture.


MoneyWork$ Now Accepting Applications


Both our Spanish and English MoneyWork$ cohorts are recruiting participants for our next 6-month program. Workshops, financial coaches, and support groups will help participants gain control of their finances. If you know anyone who is interested, direct him or her to call Opening Doors at 916.492.2591 or email Nele.



Thank You for MoneyWork$ Funding


Our MoneyWork$ program recently received grant funding from Citi Community Development and Bank of the West. With their support, LMI Sacramento area residents can learn how to build their assets and wisely spend their money. Thank you to both our funders for their generosity and endorsement of MoneyWork$.




This newsletter brings you stories of transitions - refugees transitioning from a life-endangering African prison to their new Sacramento home, or from arrival in the US to self-sufficiency and a thriving small business. We also tell of one aspect of our own current transition-the development of our Immigration Legal Services program that helps foreign-born victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes. In fact, Opening Doors is currently undergoing much transition as we grow and help increasing numbers of underserved community members to make the life-transitions they have dreamed of. Stay tuned for many positive changes in the year ahead.


Our work is possible because of you, our donors, sponsors, and volunteers.  Please help us continue this important work in 2013.  Donate now.  




eritreaFrom Eritrea to Djibouti to Sacramento: Two Refugee Stories of Overcoming Oppression and Imprisonment


Left to Right: Isayas, translator Samira, and Haile


Eritrean refugees have been coming to the United States for many years. They leave their home country to escape political repression, religious intolerance, and indefinite forced conscription. Many of them initially flee to countries such as Sudan or Ethiopia, and more recently Djibouti, only to experience similar repression and abuse. Two refugees from Eritrea, Haile and Isayas, spent three years in a Djibouti prison and agreed to speak with us about their stories, even though they only arrived in the United States late last December.


To understand Haile and Isayas' story, we must first understand the history of Eritrea. The east African country was annexed as a territory of Ethiopia in 1952. Ten years later, a war broke out between the two countries, lasting 30 years. Eritrea gained official independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The Eritrean government instituted martial law and now forces conscription into the military for all males and females age 18 and over, which can last indefinitely according to Amnesty International. Eritreans voicing political opposition or criticism of the government are imprisoned. Eritreans have been escaping to neighboring Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, despite the fact that if caught crossing the border, the Eritrean government will shoot to kill. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of January 2012, over 250,000 Eritreans had fled the country as refugees.  


Of these 250,000, Haile and Isayas are among the most recent refugees accepted into the United States. Isayas' and Haile's stories begin similarly. They were conscripted by the Eritrean government, and forced to join the army. Haile was conscripted at age 19. He tried to escape in 2005, but was caught and imprisoned. Isayas was a carpenter until he was taken to a military training center at age 18. Isayas joined Haile at a military camp at the port of Assab, where military leaders watched the soldiers at all hours of the day and throughout the night. During 2010, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on the Eritrean government. The sanctions forced the leaders to leave the military camps. After many years of forced conscription, this was Isayas and Haile's chance. They escaped into the fields next to the camp with another friend and made their way across the border.


It took three days on foot to cross into Djibouti. They had no food. No water. They had to drink their urine to avoid dehydration. Haile says they were "lucky we were able to cross."


The first thirty-three days in Djibouti were "horrible," says Isayas. At the border, they were fingerprinted and then imprisoned. Haile, Isayas and their friend were separated and placed in different rooms.


The prisons in Djibouti were horrendous. There were about 260 Eritreans imprisoned-20 to 40 of them in one small room. They only had a thin mattress on the floor. They were fed one piece of bread in the morning, one bowl of rice in boiling water in the afternoon, and one piece of bread in the evening. There was only one bathroom with one toilet. The toilet water was the only source of water to drink. If the toilet backed up, it wouldn't get fixed. Many of the prisoners became sick and received no treatment. They later died. There were guards posted at the doors at all hours of the day and night. If they made a sound, they would be beaten. Guards attacked prisoners with tear gas, killing one person. Isayas said, "We wondered 'Why are we in prison without anything?' We wanted to ask, 'Why is this happening?'"


Isayas and Haile were locked up for three years without any chance of escape, except for the hope that they would be accepted to live in the United States as refugees. They applied to the UN Refugee Agency to register for refugee status. After they were verified as having claims of persecution, they had to go through two background checks, which took many months and years. The UN Refugee Agency then granted them refugee status. However, there was an extensive waiting period before they were allowed to come to the United States. Once Haile and Isayas finished the waiting period, they were sent to their final destination through our affiliate, Church World Services.


As an affiliate of Church World Service, Opening Doors resettled the refugees in Sacramento. Staff and volunteers met them at the airport and transported them to an apartment furnished with household items from donors. We assisted them in obtaining identification documents, medical appointments, and ESL classes. We helped them find employment opportunities. They are incredibly thankful for the assistance. They were especially grateful for the cell phones Opening Doors provided as soon as they arrived. This has given them a way to communicate with their families in Eritrea after three years of no contact. Tragically, Haile learned his younger brother was killed while trying to cross the border.


Haile and Isayas are thankful to start a new life in the United States. Isayas says, "We are lucky to come. There is freedom to speak, to go to school, and to better yourself." Haile says, "If you are clever, you can succeed in school. If you learn the language, there are chances. At least here there is freedom and democracy." However, Haile notes that America is not everything that he expected. "We used to think that coming to the US would be like living in riches," he says. "I couldn't believe there would be homeless in the US. I didn't think there is hardship in the US. The people begging for cigarettes break us. How can the US help our brothers back home, if they cannot take care of the people here?"


Isayas says of their friends still in prison in Djibouti, "We don't want our brothers to go through what they are going through. Please share our story. Everyone should know what is happening every day."


At Opening Doors we are committed to empowering refugees. We assist them to establish a strong foundation, and then act as a support system, encouraging them to become self-sufficient and independent. By sharing Haile and Isayas' stories, we can empower them even further by ensuring that their voices are heard in a new country that grants them the opportunity to freely share their story and to improve their lives.



 ILSIntroducing Immigration Legal Services: Helping Victims of Crime Exercise Their Legal Rights


Gloria, (name changed to protect identity), was constantly beaten by her boyfriend to the point of unconsciousness. Whenever she suggested that she was going to call the police, her boyfriend would threaten to kill her. One time he hit her so hard that she became permanently deaf in one ear. But as an immigrant without legal status, Gloria felt powerless to change her situation. Then, a little over a year ago, she found Opening Doors' new Immigration Legal Services (ILS) program. ILS staff helped her file for a U-visa, and she is currently waiting to hear back on the status of her application. After years of abuse and being dependent on her abuser, Gloria is now taking steps towards independence and justice with the help of our low-bono legal services and social service referrals made by the ILS staff.


Opening Doors introduced its Immigration Legal Services at the end of 2011. Accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), ILS offers a variety of services at very affordable rates, such as family-based immigration, citizenship, and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals); however, we specialize in providing victims of crime visas. The T visa is available to victims of human trafficking, and the U visa and VAWA petition are for victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes. Perpetrators of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other crimes frequently use a victim's lack of immigration status as a tool for manipulation. These special visas have been established to help free victims from dependency on their abusers and to enable them to stay in the US to assist law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting these crimes.


By offering immigration services, Opening Doors can now better address the needs of our victims of human trafficking clients. Legal immigration status is a critical need for survivors of trafficking as they often cannot return to their home communities without danger from the traffickers and traffickers' associates. Our Survivors of Human Trafficking program helps identify and free trafficking victims through its public education and outreach efforts; we provide victims with safe housing, access to counseling and other needed resources so they can begin safe, new lives. But while they lack legal immigration status and are not eligible for employment, they are unable to achieve the self-sufficiency that will enable the full fresh start that they need. 


The ILS program is being directed and expanded by ILS Program Manager Erika Gonzalez.

ILS Program Manager Erika Gonzalez

Erika first came to Opening Doors as a legal intern in 2011 when she was a student at McGeorge School of Law. The program was just being formed at the time. Her passion for serving the clients and abilities both in the legal and program development realms led us to invite her to our staff when she finished law school. She has since built the ILS program to handle a caseload of 60 with the assistance of law school and undergraduate interns. Thanks to a grant from the Borchard Foundation, she is now putting into place a legal office infrastructure that will allow us to serve increasing numbers clients more efficiently. As a Latina and daughter of immigrants, Erika is ideally-suited to serve ILS clients, the majority of whom are Latino.


Another of our clients, Rosa (name changed to protect identity), came from El Salvador with her husband. He promised to file papers for her green card, so she came to with only a Tourist Visa. Once in the US, her husband became more aggressive and emotionally and physically abusive. He has continuously refused to file for her legal status, saying, "We don't have the money." She can't work legally, and he threatens to take away their kids if she leaves him. Rosa came to Opening Doors so that she could file for her own legal status without his knowledge. She wants to be secure and stable on her own before leaving him. After one year of processing, Rosa has just received permission to work and is currently looking for jobs and options for divorce. Soon, Rosa will be able to escape her abusive relationship with her husband and lead an independent life. We look forward to helping increasing numbers of clients like Rosa and Gloria understand and exercise their legal rights and gain the ability to live safe, healthy lives. 



 microfinanceA Moldovan Refugee Becomes a Full-Time Business Owner  



Starting a business can be difficult and stressful. Starting a business in a new country can be even harder. Since 2002, Opening Doors' microfinance program has helped numerous immigrants and refugees start or expand their business in the greater Sacramento-area. Many of our clients become very successful business owners after receiving a primary loan from our microenterprise program, and they return to Opening Doors for further assistance to help with the continuing expansion of their businesses.


One of our clients, Vladislav Coundratiuc, overcame several obstacles to becoming self-employed, eventually purchasing his former boss' landscaping business with the help of two loans from Opening Doors. Vladislav came to the United States with his family four years ago as a refugee from Moldova. He started working in landscaping when he arrived in the US, but his dream was to one day own a landscaping business of his own. However, he was denied loans from traditional lenders because, as a refugee who had only lived in the US for one year, he lacked the necessary credit history. He also had limited English skills, and needed business assistance in Russian in order to succeed. Opening Doors' Refugee Microenterprise Program, funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, is specifically designed to help underserved members of our community like him.


In 2010, Vladislav heard a Russian radio advertisement for Opening Doors' lending program, and discussed with his employer the possibility of taking out a loan and purchasing the landscaping business. Vladislav contacted Opening Doors, and worked with our Russian-speaking Business Specialist to better understand the process of running a business in the US and to build his business plan. Then, after a few months, he received a loan of $15,000 from our Refugee Loan Fund, which allowed him to purchase half of the landscaping business. He was very successful at maintaining strong relationships with all of his boss' former clients and immediately excelled as a full time business owner.


In 2012, after paying off his first loan, Vladislav returned to Opening Doors for a new loan to buy the remaining portion of the business. Now with 70 clients, his business is going strong. His clients continue to use his services, and he is considering hiring an employee.


For Vladislav, owning a landscaping business provides him with more than just the freedom of being self-employed. Since 2010, he has been establishing the credit history that he did not have before working with Opening Doors. Vladislav now continues to build income for his family, while living his dream of being a business owner.



Thank you for following our work. Our staff, interns and volunteers wish you a great day. 



Debra DeBondt 

Executive Director
Opening Doors, Inc.