A group of 15 mostly Vietnamese youth trickle into the dimly-lit basement of the Josephine Butler Parks Center on a recent Thursday afternoon. After snacking on cookies and chips, they take their places at a long table. Some pull out school books and they casually partner up, speaking a mix of Vietnamese and English.
Some are new arrivals to the United States, others are veterans of the Vietnamese American Community Service Center, where they perfected their English and learned more about Vietnamese culture during after-school and summer sessions.
The basement, rented by VACSC, once hosted a group of 50 kids. But due to recent budget cuts, VACSC had to let go of four of its staffers and the after-school program had to reduce in size, which is now geared toward serving older kids. President Hien Vu is the only full time staff member left, and she’s taken on everything from counseling Vietnamese adults on how to apply for Medicare to translating for students and parents.
Angela Lam is a volunteer who comes by VACSC often to help tutor students in subjects such as English. She said the group of youth in the program represent “the epitome of the Asian-American experience,” in that most are low-income and have parents with limited English proficiency or no English proficiency.
“There’s kind of a myth that all of the Asians left D.C. But these kids are still here,” she said. “These kids attend all these D.C. public schools that are mostly Latino and black… A lot of these kids are the only Asian faces in their schools.”
That’s been Tony Nguyen’s experience. The 16-year-old Woodrow Wilson High School junior said that being Vietnamese in D.C., “it’s pretty much a struggle. You’re a minority in school.”
It’s particularly challenging for recent immigrants “because they don’t know the language, they don’t know who they’re talking to or what’s going on,” Nguyen said. And the amount of slang spoken in school makes it even more difficult to learn English, he added.
Asians constitute about 3.5 percent of D.C.’s population, about 22,000 people, of whom about 1,600 are Vietnamese, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Many of the city’s Vietnamese residents are concentrated around the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where VACSC is located.
The organization is one of the only non-profits that caters specifically to Vietnamese parents and their children in D.C., and it’s at risk of closing. VACSC, which receives most of its funding through D.C. government grants, saw its budget reduced from $375,00 to $75,000 annually in October 2010.
“It’s an excellent program, and I’m very proud of the fact that Ward 1 is the home of the Vietnamese community in the District of Columbia. It’s an important part of our diversity,” D.C. Councilman Jim Graham (Ward 1) said. “… But you know, we just haven’t found a way to empower and strengthen these groups the way we should.”
Councilman Graham pushed through the initial earmark that funded VACSC’s beginnings. But all D.C. nonprofit organizations face a grim future as the proposed fiscal 2012 budget includes deep cuts, including ones to many agencies that serve the city’s most vulnerable residents. VACSC has received funding primarily through D.C. grants, but next year’s grant totals haven’t been yet decided.
Graham pointed out the fight for VACSC and similar nonprofits is difficult because “you have people who don’t have access to people with a lot of money, or who don’t have political power that they can influence other aspects of the budget. And what they did with me, they had political power with me because I cared about that. I wish I had it back.”
Vu started the organization in 2000. She had noticed a group of 35 to 40 middle and high school students, most of them boys, who were living in Columbia Heights, skipping school and getting involved with drugs or gangs. Their families, many of whom newly emigrated to the U.S., were often low-income earners.
“Their famil[ies], they are working like 10 to 12 hours a day. And also they come here and they want to imitate the life of young Americans here but they don’t have a good guidance, so it’s easy for them to take the wrong path,” she said. “The kids, when they first come here, they feel very alienated and they want to belong, like every other [child].”
Vu began working with adults, and seven years ago, she started the after-school and summer programs for children. Kids come to get homework help, learn Vietnamese cultural customs, go on field trips and participate in recreational activities.
Since the budget cuts, the after-school program is now only geared toward youth, who get tutoring from either older youth or volunteers, people like Nguyen. During Thursday’s after-school session, he offered help to Chi Ngoc Vo, a recent immigrant. He recalled when he first started coming to VACSC 5 years ago.
“I was in the phase where these [younger] kids are now, getting help and tutoring,” Nguyen said. “And since my parents didn’t know that much English, they wanted me to come here and improve mine so I could help teach them, too.”
Nguyen, who grew up in D.C., has also learned how to read and write in Vietnamese at VACSC. He sees himself as a bridge between newcomers and American culture.
Ngoc Le, 19, graduated from the group in 2010, but has come back to help tutor younger students. In between helping a young boy with English homework during Thursday’s session, she talked about what she’s learned at VACSC.
“I learned more stuff that I didn’t know before about our Vietnamese culture,” she said. “And I learned I could do stuff when I put my mind to it.”
Le used to live in Utica, N.Y., where she said Vietnamese youth did experience racism.
“There, people will say things like, ‘Ching chong ching.’ Here [in D.C.], it’s not as bad. It’s much better. People are more open-minded here,” she said.
Some of the youth at VACSC attend school together, but many bond at the center, which has become “a safe place. It’s a family,” Le said. But Vu is unsure how much longer she can keep it going. Right now, she is focused on ensuring she can still offer full-day summer camp for children of all ages. It keeps them occupied, she said, and they receive tutoring that prepares them for the school year.
To add to the struggle, the center’s offices were burglarized on Feb. 28. About $10,000 worth of equipment was stolen, mostly laptops, cameras and projectors used by students. VACSC had just canceled its insurance policy a few weeks prior to the burglary because it was too expensive, costing about $2,700 a year.
“We just couldn’t afford it,” Vu said.
The D.C. Vietnamese community’s small size, and also cultural norms that call for shying away from soliciting aggressively for donations and being very vocal about one’s own problems, puts Vu in an awkward position, she said.
“We are so small and we don’t have a big voice [in D.C.],” Vu said. “… And we don’t want to complain. Our nation, as a culture, the way we are, we cannot scream. But sometimes you have to make a noise.”