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Uptown community group celebrates immigration services

Submitted on Thu, 12/27/2007 – 15:36.

An Uptown organization has been assisting newly arrived Southeast Asian refugees and immigrants for nearly three decades. With butterflies on the program as a symbol of metamorphosis, the Chinese Mutual Aid Association recently celebrated its ongoing efforts and successes.

Called “Celebrating Community Building,” the Nov. 14 event, held at the Aon Center, was decorated with butterflies and bamboo, traditional symbols for longevity and vitality in certain Asian cultures. The dinner was also a fundraiser for the organization.

“We wanted to build on a theme of what we’re doing as an organization,” said Art Nicol, the development director. “Butterflies convey a sense of transformation, a chrysalis, much like CMAA right now. We’ve fed on the grassroots for 25 years and are growing.”

The mission of the non-profit organization located at 1016 W. Argyle St. is to help Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees adjust to American life and encourage their active participation in society. In addition to basic social services, such as employment and healthcare help, CMAA offers language and literacy classes.

Case workers also assist people seeking citizenship, serving 2,765 individuals during fiscal year 2005 in various points of the application process.

Since 1981 when the organization was formally established as a non-profit, it has received funding from state and local government for its social service programs. Assets at the end of 2005 totaled $1,166, 730, according to the group’s financial statement. With these funds, CMAA assists more than 13,000 individuals in Chicago each year.

Last month’s dinner was attended by almost 300 staff and community members, volunteers and business partners to celebrate the association’s evolving community presence. The group once served an almost entirely Chinese population, but it now helps a more diverse clientele of Asian as well as a few immigrants from Russia and Africa.

“[CMAA] plays a very significant role in the community. They give immigrants a place to turn when they arrive in America,” said CLTV anchor Judy Wang, who was the dinner’s Mistress of Ceremonies along with CBS2 ‘s Joanie Lum. “They work hard at giving immigrants a leg up. My family came to this country in the ‘60s and would have benefited from a place like CMAA to get a sense of community.”

As a mentor for Chinese Mutual Aid Association’s Young Women Warriors program, Dr. Lisa Abrams strives to strengthen that “sense of community.” She was honored at the dinner for her volunteer efforts.

“I was very excited [about the award]; I don’t know how to put it into words,” said Abrams, an internal medicine physician, who first became involved with the organization seven years ago when her sister was youth coordinator.

Abrams plays a type of sister role in the program, meeting with young Asian girls twice a month to discuss issues, ranging from self-defense to health and sexuality, and for recreational outings. Abrams occasionally hosts sleepovers for the girls at her home.

“It’s amazing to see these girls grow. One was 10 when I started and is now in college. She was very quiet and now is outgoing and outspoken. After my sister got me involved with CMAA, it became easy to volunteer, where I was afraid to before,” Abrams said. “It’s just amazing to see these girls go off and achieve.”

In addition to the awards ceremony, the event included a silent auction that raised approximately $1,600. Nicol said with the auction, donations and dinner ticket sales, the event’s net gain would be close to $20,000 for the group.

The evening also featured performances by dancers and musicians, including Evanston-based international vocalist Louise Cloutier whose credits include lending her talents to the Oscar -nominated animated short film “Stubble Trouble.”

“I performed because I am very interested in world music, especially now,” Cloutier said. “I am putting together a solo concert on music about diaspora and immigration, so this organization was a perfect fit. I’m hoping to continue to make connections, perhaps gather more repertoire ideas from the community that they serve.”

Nicol hopes the event served as a catalyst for the upcoming year, inspiring members to continue to build and strengthen the group’s impact, especially upon senior citizens. They are currently planning a senior center that may grow into a larger community center.

“[The immigrants that come to CMAA] are very resilient and have a lot to offer. They are an asset to our community,” Nicol said. “They’re no longer coal, but have been turned into diamonds after coming into the neighborhood and working with us.”

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