Immigrants and Refugee Affairs

City Officials Want Immigrant Family Institute to Be a Permanent Program

Participants want to see the eight-week program continue, and expanded.

By Hayat Norimine May 15, 2017

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Abdul Farah, 15, describes his experience at the city's Immigrant Family Institute at City Hall on May 13, 2017. 

For eight weeks, 15-year-old Abdullahi Farah, a freshman at Evergreen High School's technology school in White Center, spent four hours every Saturday in workshops with city employees and Seattle police officers. And he loved it. 

"This actually changed my life," Abdul said.

Abdul, who was born in the U.S. with parents from Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, was part of the city's eight-week Immigrant Family Institute, a pilot program meant to keep youth from immigrant families out of the criminal justice system by bringing youth and police officers together for workshops. He said the Saturday mornings turned his fear of cops into an appreciation for them, that now he can communicate with his parents better and express his emotions; he connected with Jabali Stewart, an administrator at the Bush School who's contracted with the city. 

"This bicultural reality that they have to grapple with, I get that," said Stewart, whose parents immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago. He said he saw Abdul as "the classic case of the kid who's on the fence." Abdul said his older brother was in and out of jail when he was younger, starting at the age of 16.

This year 42 family members and eight police officers participated voluntarily, according to officials. But as the program came to an end on Saturday, its participants were both appreciative and uncertain—they wanted the program to continue, in an even larger scale. While officials say Seattle mayor Ed Murray has been a strong supporter of the program, he's also on his way out. Murray's not seeking reelection; his last day as mayor is December 31. 

"We've got to see if the city's going to put its money where its mouth is," Stewart said to PubliCola Saturday. "It's subject to the mayor's whims. ... We need to know that the city's ready to back OIRA up. I would love to see this grow."

Right now the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs has a request into the mayor's office for the Immigrant Family Institute to be a permanent eight-week program every year as the office evaluates the results of the pilot. OIRA director Cuc Vu said the city's in the middle of budget discussions, and she's not worried about whether the program—which costs a little over $100,000—will continue, regardless of who the next mayor is. The office currently has a budget of a little over $4 million, Vu said. 

"When you tap into a need like this and the response that we got, it rises above politics," Vu said, "and I think we've got a pretty strong case to continue whoever the next mayor is." 

As far as expanding the program, though, that's more challenging. OIRA officials are also considering parenting workshops that could add another seven weeks or so. Any more than that would be tough to manage for a small office, Vu said, unless the mayor chose to expand OIRA with more investment or staff. 

"I certainly think that there's a statement of need that you heard today that could support a larger program," Vu said.

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