Moving to a new country and figuring out how to submit an insurance claim or learn how to use the local transportation system can be daunting no matter where you came from or what language you speak.
But add in the language and cultural barriers that many Eastside immigrants face, and the challenge of adjusting to life in a new country can become even greater. Enter Eastside Cultural Navigator Program, an organization located within Redmond's that helps immigrants and refugees understand and obtain access to a wide range of services.
Redmond City Council members Kim Allen, John Stilin and Pat Vache, Kirkland City Council member Dave Asher and a handful of City of Kirkland staff members were at Together Center Tuesday morning to learn more about the program. Several of the officials who attended said they plan to help spread the word about the services that are available in the hopes that more people in need will seek out help.
"It's an incredibly important service that's offered," Vache said. "It is really hard to find your way around (a new place), even if English is your first language."
Eastside Cultural Navigator Program assists about 80 people each week at its Redmond office, according to program coordinator Chor Phen Ng. The effort is part of the Seattle-based Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) but provides translation in Spanish and the languages of India at its Redmond office, as well as Russian, Chinese and Korean at a second office in Bellevue.
Services include help with finding employment, learning the local bus sytem, signing up for English classes, applying for food and housing assistance, and more. Staff are also trained to help clients find help for issues such as domestic violence and mental illness.
Ng, who is originally from Malaysia, said he knows firsthand how difficult it can be for new immigrants to learn about social services. Many immigrants do not have similar programs back home and are unaware such assistance even exists in their new communities.
Alaric Bien, CISC's executive director, said the navigator program originally served just Asian-American immigrants when it began in 2007 but has since expanded to include many of the Eastide's other growing ethnic populations.
Asher said he's pleased the organization has been able to reach out to new ethnic communities on the Eastside.
"The needs are very, very similar," he said.
Uma Sehgal, the Indian Cultural Navigator at the Redmond office, said she spends a significant amount of her time helping people fill out forms. Although many of her clients are well-educated and speak some English, most still struggle to understand legal and financial paperwork.
"Most of the time we spend translating the forms," Sehgal said. "The real communication—that's where the problem comes in."
Since the economic recession began, Bien said more and more people have turned to the Eastside Cultural Navigator Program for assistance. Spanish speakers, in particular, have a growing need for help with basic needs like food and housing, he said.
"We've seen a huge increase in need from that community," Bien said.
The cities of Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond all contribute funding to the program, with Redmond currently providing approximately $28,000 per year, he said.
Redmond officials said they are pleased the navigator program is located at Together Center—where several other social service nonprofits are also housed. The physical layout of Together Center "leverages the resources" that Redmond immigrants can access, council member Allen said.
"These are our citizens, (and) this is who we need to serve," she said. "I'm very proud to have this here in Redmond."