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Where Cho Got Help, Trouble Looms

In Seung Hui Cho's short, disturbed life, there was one hopeful chapter. For about four years while he was in middle and high school, the boy who would become the Virginia Tech shooter was in the care of therapists who used art and play to draw him out of his muted world and show him how to cope.

Fairfax County's school system sent Cho to the Center for Multicultural Human Services in Falls Church, which, for 25 years, has found ways to connect with mentally ill children of immigrants as well as people who find asylum in the United States but bear the wounds of war, poverty and dislocation.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, after we've learned how dangerously limited the state's mental health system is, you'd think places such as CMHS would be more valued than ever. You'd be wrong. The center, founded as a foster care program for orphaned refugee children, is on the verge of closing.

"To be honest, this month, I don't know how things are going to come together to make payroll," said Dennis Hunt, longtime director of the center, which relies on local and federal government grants and donations from corporations, foundations and individuals.

With the feds cutting back on mental health funding and illegal immigration emerging as a highly emotional political issue, the center is seeing most of its traditional sources of money dry up. "We're getting feedback from corporations that maybe this is something they don't want to be involved in because of the climate right now," Hunt said.

As a result, the center is saddled with $500,000 in debt and was forced to lay off half of its staff of 85 counselors and case managers.

Although the center doesn't require its clients to divulge their legal status, Hunt said about 80 percent of the immigrants who get help from CMHS -- with mental health, housing, legal issues, gang prevention and English-language instruction -- are in this country legally. The center treats about 8,000 people a year, mostly in Fairfax but also from throughout Northern Virginia.

Many are people such as Getahun Lema, an Ethiopian social worker who was tortured because of his opposition to his country's political powers. Lema, who came to the United States in 2003 and works as a security guard, heard about CMHS from a friend and sought help for depression. He got far more than therapy: Counselors and case managers helped him win asylum and thus legal status. They provided him with transitional housing so he could bring his wife and children from Ethiopia.

"Psychologically and socially, they provided for me so that my family could come together," said Lema, 46. "They showed me how to find a job, how to work with the American system. In America sometimes, you are confused. Here, they tell me I will be okay, America is a land of opportunity. When I am here, I think I am in my country."

Lema beams as he boasts about his son, who is in college, and his younger children, who attend "the best school in Virginia," Lemon Road Elementary School in Falls Church.

Therapist Abdel Mostafa, an Egyptian immigrant and physician who cares for many of the center's African and Middle Eastern clients, said Lema is typical of immigrants who might be here legally but find themselves depressed and lost in a new place where no one knows about the torture they escaped. "Many of them see no way out except suicide or being a criminal," Mostafa said.

With short-term help, however, most CMHS clients quickly gain confidence and find jobs and friends. "If we can help them with their housing and legal issues, it's amazing how their mental health gets better, too," said Ricarda Dowling, the center's development director.

The anti-illegal immigration fervor sweeping Northern Virginia has made the center's work much more difficult, Hunt said. CMHS counselors describe a panic, especially among Hispanic immigrants, some of whom they say are afraid to enroll their children in school for fear of provoking a visit from police. (When CMHS started, its clients were mostly from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Today, clients come from more than 50 nations, with El Salvador, Bolivia, Vietnam, Peru, Cameroon and Ethiopia supplying the most.)

Despite the political and media spotlights on illegal immigration, none of the case managers I spoke to have seen any new reluctance on the part of employers to hire immigrants. Counselors say most employers understand that most immigrants are here legally and that the United States remains a beacon for victims of war around the world.

So the center is organizing a celebration of immigration and a fundraiser called "We Are America Now" Nov. 2 in McLean, with Hong Le Webb, the Vietnamese-born wife of Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), as chairwoman.

But it's a tough time: "We still don't have a solid sponsor for the event," Hunt said. "The corporations are backing away. We've been told, 'Why don't you say it's about 'diversity' instead of 'immigrants'?"

By Marc Fisher |  September 30, 2007; 9:19 AM ET
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With the money saved by closing this center we can afford to hire another Blackwater sniper for a couple of days.

Posted by: justTHINK | September 30, 2007 12:03 PM

I'ld agree with justTHINK.
Exactly how much does the center need to operate each year?
And for anyone wanting to make the argument that money spent in Iraq means we're safe, then lets stop spending money in this country on anything unless it's for the war.

Posted by: Ted | September 30, 2007 8:51 PM

The state ought to pony up for this. The northern Va. area has a unique set of challenges due to it's proximity to the worlds embassies, and this is a really needed service.

Posted by: Tim Scanlon | October 1, 2007 4:31 AM

Thank you for writing this article. Citizens/taxpayers should be carefully examining funding allocations of local property taxes in Fairfax County. The public schools referred Cho to this center. Did FCPS pay any associated fees?
Is this organization more essential than some other expenditures? Yes.

Posted by: mydchome | October 1, 2007 8:35 AM

CMHS is paying for their selfish hypocritical and lawless actions. They knowingly assist illegal aliens with mental health/social services which enable them to work illegally, and to access scarce public services intended for citizens or legal immigrants, and they refuse to report the illegal employers of their "clients" to ICE. Talk about warped professional ethics.

CMHS donations are drying up because Virigina has now enacted laws, with my support, to make aiding and abetting illegal immigration using tax exempt funds a violation of state law.

CMHS had a choice, and it chose to take the money and facilitate human exploitation and corruption. Just because the elitobigot rationalizations of CMHS, its professional staff like Dowling and Mostafa, and of Mr. Fisher sound banal, doesn't mean they are not also evil.

Their collaboration with the great evil of illegal immigration has brought the good technical work they could be doing with legal immigrants into great jeopardy.

Posted by: Mike Hethmon, IRLI | October 1, 2007 12:46 PM

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