Over 20 years ago an Arab immigrant asked for help; Now she and her nonprofit are serving Orange County residents amid pandemic

Everyone in her neighborhood in Damascus knew that Nahla Kayali was going to go a long way in life.

Kayali, who grew up in Syria as a Palestinian refugee, married at the age of 16 to fulfill her dream of coming to the United States, but when her children were teenagers, she found herself a single mother in seeking support services.

Arab-American Heritage Month

This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting Arab American business owners and community organizations as part of Arab American Heritage Month in April.

“I went to a therapist and they were able to provide professional support, but they couldn’t understand my culture. When I went to the mosque, they understood my culture, but they couldn’t help me professionally, ”Kayali said.

So she decided to start a non-profit organization in Little Arabia in Anaheim in 1998 with a grant of $ 2,000, a telephone, a folding table, a chair that she removed from a dumpster and a objective of providing health and human services to its community in a culturally sensitive environment. path.

“I’m not a social worker and I’m not a therapist, so it was kind of a challenge, but I met so many people who helped me and mentored me to provide such services,” Kayali said.

Since then, Kayali has received the White House Champion of Change Award in 2014 for her work with the community.

Today, his nonprofit Access California Services (AccessCal) has a budget of over $ 2 million and serves nearly 12,000 clients annually. It provides around 100 different types of services to people in 16 different languages ​​for free.

Suzanne Baker, director of operations for the nonprofit, said those services include helping people get medical coverage, food and jobs, as well as financial support as well as classes. citizenship and English. There are also parenting classes which Kayali says are popular.

“We have our licensed child care program where we empower women to help them start their own family day care in their homes,” Baker added.

Although the organization focuses on Arab American and American Muslim communities, it serves people and immigrants from all walks of life.

“There was no advice for us when we first arrived as immigrants on how to navigate the system here, so we used to learn on our own,” Kayali said. “Now there is an open door to help the community in any way.”

Even during the pandemic.

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“When the pandemic first hit, I think we were shut down for a few hours just to figure things out,” Baker said. “Our phone was on nonstop. Customers kept calling us. “

She said many people worry about their doctor’s appointments, people need to renew their health insurance, and some need help filing for unemployment.

Suzanne Baker, Director of Operations for Access California Services, makes sure the nonprofit is functioning properly to serve thousands of clients. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

The nonprofit decided to keep working, finding creative ways to help people and protect them from the virus.

“We had to serve the community during this difficult time,” said Baker. “We started providing the services over the phone.”

Kayali said the nonprofit has worked hard to help people get financial aid and has run classes to help teach people how to use Zoom. They organized distributions of food, diapers and toys.

“I remember one day we made almost 70 apps and our phone was ringing constantly. Many of our clients have never filed for unemployment before, so they are not familiar with it, ”she said, recalling a man who cried after losing his 26-year-old job.

Kayali said the pandemic has shown her how essential her nonprofit is and that her staff have stepped up to continue serving their community.

“I think each of us chose to be a part of this profession to help the community and this is the time when they needed us and we responded immediately,” she said.

Fund and support refugees

Funding for the non-profit organization comes from donations, government agencies, faith-based institutions, and even grants.

“We have been quite successful in the long term in seeking funding from government and foundations. There are many government foundations that really want to support the integration and culture of immigrants and refugees, ”said Ameera Basmadji, director of funds and research development for AccessCal.

Basmadji said the money goes into the various programs that AccessCal offers, such as health care or employment services.

The nonprofit also began receiving funds from the county to serve refugees in 2011.

Kayali said that prior to the Trump administration, his nonprofit served 700 refugees a year, but then dropped to around 100. Basmadji said funding declined during that time as well.

Kayali said that with the new administration, more refugees could come to America.

“This president promised that 125,000 refugees will arrive in the United States under the previous administration, we only had 11,000,” she said.

Kayali said about 1,000 of them could come to Orange County.

Immigration services

They are not just refugees.

AccessCal also helps people get immigration benefits, reunites families and has recently faced many applicants for temporary protection status from some countries like Syria.

“It’s a temporary protection to be able to legally work, live and go to school without fear of being expelled for a period of time until things get under control in the country they come from or find a path to more permanent immigration here in the United States, ”said Rania Humidian, the nonprofit’s citizenship and immigration coordinator and their Department of Justice representative.

Humidian said while she didn’t know the exact number of those immigrants to the county, it was a large number.

Access California Services has been providing assistance to underserved populations throughout Orange County for over 20 years.

Mental health services

AccessCal’s Mental Health Services Coordinator Noor Aljawad oversees a department of interns who help individuals and families get the therapy they need.

“The way a community is represented in a society and our engagement has an impact on our mental health,” said Aljawad. “I want to serve all of our marginalized communities, but I am particularly passionate about serving the Arab and Muslim community.”

During the pandemic, the nonprofit offered socially distanced limited in-person therapy with masks in a large room, but mainly provided sessions on Zoom which has its own challenges.

Aljawad said that part of the way you support a client is through eye contact and body language, which is not the same with Zoom. She added that the pandemic had not affected the way they conduct therapy, but the lives of their clients.

“They could return, for example, to an abusive spouse due to financial difficulties. So there is an increase in such cases of abducted children because there has been an escalation of the conflict due to financial pressures, ”Aljawad said.

Aljawad hopes to be able to expand the department in the future.

Hosam Elattar is a member of Voice of OC Reporting. Contact him @ helattar @ voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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