Refugee Organization “Raises Roof” to Expand Support for Immigrant Women

by Carolyn Bick

When it opened 33 years ago, the Refugee Women’s Alliance – then known as the South East Asian Women’s Alliance – was comprised of just a few members in a small building. Now, the nonprofit is one of the largest in the area, and is about to expand even more, to meet the growing needs of immigrant and refugee women and children in Seattle, Washington.

The Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWa) held its Raise the Roof event to formally acknowledge and celebrate a $5.5 million addition to its main headquarters at 4008 Martin Luther King, Jr., Way on March 28. ReWa provides a range of services for the refugee and immigrant community, including early childhood education, employment and job training, and naturalization and legal services.

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Attendees hold hands at ReWa’s Raise The Roof celebration at the organization’s Seattle headquarters. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

ReWa’s Early Learning Center Operations Director Susan Lee said the new space is crucial for the community, and is geared specifically towards meeting its educational needs. The project, christened Metamorphosis, will yield a new space that will provide room for 40 more young students, which she said is sorely needed: there are more than 150 children on ReWa’s waitlist.

“We actually are going to be having two preschools we are going to be opening. The one we are doing right here is … for three additional classrooms for 30 students,” Lee said. “We will also have a classroom for 10 children who are in childcare, as well. This is really to support the home language, diverse cultures, and really preparing our children to be ready and acclimated for kindergarten.”

According to ReWa’s website, there will also be space for a new outdoor play area, private case management rooms, and a teen education and resource center. There will also be a gathering hall on the second floor of the new space, said ReWa Executive Director Mahnaz Eshetu.

“We will try to bring communities together, to do focus group work, to have events, to bring the neighbors to learn about refugees and immigrant culture, and also refugees learning about the neighbors’ culture,” Eshetu said.

Lee said the addition would provide better access to a dual-language preschool for low-income families. All teachers in the facility speak the home languages of the children they teach, she said, and are accredited with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education.

The new space is on track to be finished in late 2019. Of the total $5.5 million cost, Lee said the Seattle Preschool Program funded $500,000 of that, with ReWa itself matching those funds, while the state legislature has earmarked $1 million for the project. The rest, Eshetu said, came from multiple donors and a loan.

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A pre-schooler sings during ReWa’s Raise The Roof celebration. [Photo: Carolyn Bick]
Event speaker and ReWa beneficiary Nawaal Khalif said she is excited for the new space to open. Having come from a small village in Somalia, where she was expected only to tend to her aunt’s goats, she understands the empowerment that can come through education, she said. When she arrived in the United States, Khalif was placed in the ninth grade, despite only having up to a fourth-grade education, so she went to ReWa for help with her homework, job skills, and time management. She has since applied to and matriculated at Seattle Central College, thanks to ReWa’s help and guidance.

Now, Khalif has dreams beyond tending goats. She wants to be a lawyer – not for herself, she said, but “to be able to help others.”

“My goal for the future is to become a lawyer who is in the position to help low-income people fight for affordable housing, and defend the innocent,” Khalif said. “I have learned from ReWa how wonderful it is to help others.”

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