1988 Finalist
State of Illinois
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

Many of the Southeast Asian refugees who migrated to the United States had lived an agrarian lifestyle in small villages. Primarily farmers and fishermen, they had little, if any, formal education. The devastation of their homeland for decades resulted in the death and separation of family members and friends. Cambodians were especially victimized by the Indochinese crisis. An estimated 3 million, or more than 43 percent, of the entire Cambodian population was exterminated during the period of 1975-1979. Educated adults and professionals were targets for torture and elimination. Massive numbers of infants and children were murdered or starved to death. The Vietnamese also continue to flee Vietnam at a rate of more than 1,000 per month. Other prominent refugee groups such as the Lao and Ethiopians continue to seek refuge in the U.S. from religious and political persecution in their homelands.

Between 1975 and 1977, Illinois dealt successfully with the unexpected need to resettle tens of thousands of Southeast Asians after the fall of Saigon. Efforts at long-range planning were institutionalized in 1978. Illinois sponsored a series of leadership seminars in Chicago to expose refugee leaders to established community-based organizations and services, with the hope that refugees would be able to access their services. During the seminars, it became apparent that existing, mainstream service organizations would be unable to optimally serve or incorporate refugees, given their unique cultural and language needs.

Mutual Assistance Associations (MAAs) are ethnic-specific, community-based organizations with refugee boards of directors and predominantly bilingual refugee staff. The MAAs were carefully planned and developed to address the comprehensive immediate and long-term needs of the most populous refugee groups who have resettled in Illinois.

Adaptation to modern city life requires the development of urban survival skills. The most mundane matters become problematic to persons isolated from the language and culture of their immediate environment. Accessing public transportation, paying utility bills, and purchasing food are new and frightening experiences for many refugees. MAAs provide a sensitive and understanding response to refugee problems and a renewed sense of community identity. The staff of MAAs are refugees who have previously confronted and triumphed over similar adversities. The bilingual MAA refugee staff serve as advocates, interpreters, and role models to their fellow countrymen.

The Illinois Department of Public Aid has coordinated organizational development and fostered an integrated service system through its MAA project. This system addresses a comprehensive range of community planning needs through contractual funding relationships and the provision of technical assistance. Funds have been made available to systematically expand each center's growth from social and cultural adjustment services to complex, performance-based employment services. Community economic development activities have been stimulated through the funding of special MAA initiatives designed to assist the development of organizational expertise, sophisticated refugee community leadership, and the neighborhood economy.

The MAAs have contributed to stabilizing the transient nature of the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, thus establishing a more permanent community. The MAAs are making significant contributions to the resolution of problems in refugee neighborhoods. They also provide leadership for the community response to problems such as crime, housing, and education. In the last four years, over 85 refugee-owned businesses have opened, consequently stimulating the sagging local economy in the Uptown neighborhood. The renaissance occurring in the once elegant Uptown neighborhood is largely attributable to the growth and influence of its new refugee residents. As with immigrant groups before them, refugees were destined to give life to community organizations grounded in their cultural heritage, common language, and neighborhood concerns.