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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Receiving their CNA certificates Friday were Ivy Tech Refugee Scholar graduates, from left, Edmond Mikobi, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Thet Thet Naing, Burma; Bernadette Olivier and her daughter Laureen Apollon, Haiti; and Leon Kwete, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Ivy Tech opens path to better life for refugees

Sam Hoffman
Leon Kwete, a former chemical engineer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thanks the teachers and sponsors of the Ivy Tech Refugee Scholar Program. Five refugees received CNA diplomas through the program Friday.

A mother and teenage daughter from Haiti. Cousins from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. An eager, young woman from Burma.

Refugees, friends and teachers shared laughter and tears of joy Friday at a graduation ceremony where the group received their CNA, or certified nursing assistant, certifications.

Several community and state partners are behind the Ivy Tech Refugee Scholar Program, which officially began this spring.

The first class of 11 students has completed coursework and earned 15 college credits and, after passing the state examination, will be able to embark on new medical careers.

Haitian refugees Bernadette Olivier and her 16-year-old daughter, Laureen Apollon, took the classes together and both plan to find work in the medical field.

Laureen, who attended New Haven High School but will transfer to Snider High School this fall, had the audience laughing when she noted that she was relieved she would not have to work in a fast food restaurant.

The CNA certification will give her solid footing for a career as a pediatrician, she said.

Her mother also drew laughter when she remarked in broken English, “I am 40. I am sorry.”

But her talk took a somber turn when she recounted how living in Haiti was “not easy like it is here.”

“This has opened the way for me to find a better job,” she said, noting that in her native country, people often have to pay officials to get a job.

Bernadette, her husband and their three children – Laureen, Carla, 14, and Gael, 19 – lost family and friends in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she said.

Two of her sons were killed.

“After the earthquake, I lost my family, but now you are all my family,” she said.

“If I say thank you, that is not enough,” she said, fighting back tears. “So, I let God say thank you.”

The small group of graduates also included cousins from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Edmond Mikobi and Leon Kwete.

Mikobi was an X-ray technician in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been in the U.S. four years.

“I had no opportunity to do so here because of my language (barrier),” he said. “Through this program, I can be successful.”

Four instructors worked closely with the graduates, including a registered nurse and Natalie Garces, a seventh-grade teacher at Queen of Angels Catholic School.

Garces was born in New York, but her family is from Colombia, South America.

“I was their English teacher and a tutor after class,” Garces said. “The fact that they are able to stand and speak to a group in English – they are very brave,” she said.

“At the same time while they are using their language skills, they are learning a health care profession,” said Cindy Chenoweth, program chair of Health Care Support. “Once they receive their certification, maybe they will be able to go out and find employment.”

Kwete said he was the father of six boys and a girl but had only one wife.

“I am excited and very happy,” he said.

Kwete was a chemical engineer and the manager of many government programs in his country, but it was hard to find work when he and his family came to the United States, he said.

“I had to go from manager and engineer to general labor and had to realign my life,” he said.

Kwete plans to continue his studies and become a practical nurse and credited sponsors and teachers for helping him find a career path.

“I can do it,” Kwete said. “I love you.”

Partners of Ivy Tech's Refugee Scholar Program include Catherine Kasper Place, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, Indiana Family & Social Services Administration, Parkview Health and St. Anne's Home.

All costs for training are covered, including all books, curriculum fees and uniforms.

Up to 36 refugees at the Fort Wayne and Indianapolis Ivy Tech campuses will earn CNA certifications this year.

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement through Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration provided a $250,000 contract to educate refugees who have been in the country at least six months and less than five years in trades for which they might be employable within 12 months.

Matt Schomburg, state refugee coordinator at the FSSA and Division of Family Resources, said the funding was the direct result of a conversation with Dr. Deborah McMahan, county health commissioner.

“Dr. McMahan said many refugees come to this country with medical experience, and she wished there was an educational program that would enhance those skills and find jobs for them,” Schomburg said.

McMahan said seeing her wish come to fruition is wonderful on two levels.

“One, to now have an opportunity to refer young adults – that I can tell have potential – to a program designed with their unique issues in mind, that will allow them to realize their educational and economic potential is just so amazing,” McMahan said.

“Secondly, to know that I have folks in our community and in state government that are willing to truly collaborate on important issues like this that have generational impact – well, it is what lets me sleep at night.

“When an individual moves up the education and employment ladder, our community moves up as well.”

The success of the program has provided stimulus for similar initiatives.

“Our hope is for current refugee funding to stay in place. In addition to the CNA Health Careers program, Ivy Tech Northeast would like to offer a Refugee Scholars Program for manufacturing, specific training for CNC operators,” said Jerrilee Mosier, chancellor for Ivy Tech Northeast. “This program addition would help address a significant need in the workforce for the local manufacturing community.”

Graduate Thet Thet Naing from Burma said the CNA certification is “a first step for success in life.”

“When I first came to America and started to learn English, it was very hard for me,” she said. “I learned a lot and I am still learning.

“I am now trying to take nursing classes.”