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Former Refugee Helps Others Achieve American Dream

Photo of Van Kuno, an ACF Grantee in Washington state.Van Dinh Kuno probably has one of the most fulfilling jobs in America.

For the last 27 years, she has gone to work at Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest (RISN) in Everett, Washington, a small community 30 miles north of Seattle, where she helps new Americans gain employment – and a solid footing – in the United States.  RISN partners with Edmonds Community College, an organization that has received a Health Profession Opportunity Grant (HPOG) through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).

“In this position, you become a sister, like a family member to your client. You represent authority,” said Kuno, who started as a job developer and now leads RISN as its executive director. “You become a shoulder to cry on.”

Kuno has provided comfort and reassurance to men and women who left their homeland to escape political persecution, religious oppression and/or economic misfortunes.  

Once clients step through RISN’s doors, they are assessed to identify their education level, work history and skills. Short term and long term goals are then established with clients. Intensive ESL classes are scheduled to get the client’s English at a functional level within six to nine months.

If a person’s desire is to go into the medical field, Kuno and her staff are ready to promote a program that the center successfully administers with a 100 percent job placement record: HPOG.

“HPOG is a wonderful program,” said Kuno. “When I meet with clients that want to go into health care, I tell them ‘I have a wonderful program. Trust me. This will change your life.’”

The HPOG program was created under the Affordable Care Act, which provides education and training to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients and other low-income individuals for occupations in the health care field that pay well and are expected to experience labor shortages or be in high demand. Eighty-five percent of Kuno’s caseload receives TANF benefits and have turned to Kuno’s center to get them on a path to self-sufficiency.

The Affordable Care Act gave ACF’s Office of Family Assistance funding for 32 HPOG programs throughout the nation. Participants receive health care-related training in the following fields, among others:

  • Home care aides
  • Certified nursing assistants
  • Medical assistants
  • Pharmacy technicians
  • Emergency medical technicians
  • Licensed vocational nurses
  • Registered nurses
  • Dental assistants
  • Health information technicians

Grantees work with community partners to enhance supportive services for participants, such as transportation, dependent care and temporary housing.

Kuno’s first group of HPOG students were all successfully placed into good jobs. When she did a 90-day retention check up, every student was still employed.

“Sixty-five percent of program participants are women,” said Kuno. “Some of our male clients are the Lost Boys of Sudan, who now work as EKG technicians. EKGs, along with certified nursing assistants, home health care and assisted living positions are the most popular jobs we fill. These full-time positions pay $12 to $16 an hour with benefits.”

Kuno works hard to assure local industries that hiring these new Americans is a worthwhile investment.

“When we place our clients, we follow up seven days after through email or a phone call with the supervisor to get feedback,” said Kuno, who has already successfully placed 50 clients since 2011. “One issue that usually comes up is the language barrier. We help identify problems and help find solutions in order to continue employment.”

Not only do these clients learn a new profession, but Kuno’s center also teaches them financial education. They learn how to budget and save money, take advantage of Earned Income Tax Credits, and connect with agencies that sponsor Individual Development Accounts (IDA) so clients can multiply their savings and invest in a car, their first home or a college degree.

Kuno sees her work with refugees and immigrants as a “paying it forward” gesture. She is a former refugee herself and is thankful for the assistance she received from kind Americans when she arrived in America at the age of eight.

In 1975, Kuno’s family had only 20 minutes to escape from Vietnam. Her father, who worked alongside the U.S. military in the Vietnam War, took his family and placed them on a boat where they spent 11 days at sea before they were rescued by the U.S. Navy.   

“When I came to this country as a refugee myself, we didn’t have the network that we have right now,” said Kuno, whose family settled in Minnesota. “I learned everything by myself and from a few generous Americans who held my hand in the process to navigate the system.”

Her family succeeded in achieving the American Dream. All of her siblings graduated from high school and college. Kuno earned a degree in science. When her parents moved from Minnesota to Washington State to live with their eldest son, Kuno – being unmarried – kept with Vietnamese tradition and followed her parents.

“I took care of my dad who was ill at the time. Once he got better, I took him to the job service center so he could find work,” said Kuno. “I saw an opening for a job developer for Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest. I applied for it even though my brother urged me to go back to the biomedical field. Two days later, they offered me the job. I had to learn everything at the beginning. I had never developed a job except for myself.”

Although she had set her sights on a career in the biomedical field, Kuno has no regrets taking on a social services career path. She hopes to continue working with HPOG to connect bright futures with the medical professions.

“HPOG is a benefit to the community,” she said.

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