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Everybody in her neighborhood in Damascus knew Nahla Kayali was going to go far in life.

Kayali, who grew up in Syria as a Palestinian refugee, got married at the age of 16 to achieve her dream of coming to the U.S. but when her children were teenagers she found herself a single mom searching for supportive services.

Arab American Heritage Month

This story is the part of an ongoing series highlighting Arab American business owners and community based organizations as part of Arab American Heritage Month in April.

“I went to a therapist and they could provide professional support but they could not understand my culture. When I went to the Mosque they understood my culture but they could not help me professionally,” Kayali said.

So she set out to start a nonprofit in Anaheim’s Little Arabia in 1998 with a $2,000 grant, a phone, a folding table, a chair she pulled out of a dumpster and a goal to provide health and human services to her community in a culturally sensitive way.

“I’m not a social worker and I’m not a therapist so that was kind of a challenge but I met so many people that helped me and mentored me to provide such services,” Kayali said.

Since then Kayali has received the Champion of Change award from the White House in 2014 for her work with the community.

Today her nonprofit Access California Services (AccessCal) has a budget of over $2 million and serves close to 12,000 clients annually. It provides around 100 different types of services to people in 16 different languages for free.

Suzanne Baker, the director of operation for the non profit, said these services include helping people get health coverage, food and jobs as well as financial support as well as citizenship and English classes. There are also parenting classes which Kayali said are popular.

“We have our daycare licensing program where we empower women to help to establish their own in home family daycare,” Baker added.

While the organization focuses on Arab-American and Muslim-American communities they serve people and immigrants from all walks of life.

“There was no advice for us when we came as immigrants on how to navigate the system here so we used to learn on our own,” Kayali said. “Now there’s a door open to help the community in any way.”

Even during the pandemic.

Stepping Up to Address the Pandemic

“When the pandemic first hit, I think we were closed for a couple of hours just to figure things out,” Baker said. “Our phone was nonstop. Clients kept calling us.”

She said many people were worried about their doctor appointments, people needed to renew their health insurance and some needed help to apply for unemployment.

Suzanne Baker, the director of operations for Access California Services, helps make sure the nonprofit runs smoothly to serve thousands of clients. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

The nonprofit decided to continue working by finding creative ways to assist people and keep them safe from the virus.

“We had to serve the community during this difficult time,” Baker said. “We started to provide the services over the phone.”

Kayali said the nonprofit worked hard to help people get financial assistance and held classes to help teach people how to use Zoom. They held distributions for food, diapers and toys.

“I remember one day we did almost like 70 applications and our phone was constantly ringing. Many of our clients have never filled out unemployment applications before so they’re not familiar with it,” she said recalling one man who cried after losing his job of 26 years.

Kayali said the pandemic showed her how essential her nonprofit really is and that her staff stepped up to continue to serve their community.

“I think each and every one of us chose to be in this profession to help the community and this is the time that they needed us and we responded immediately,” she said.

Funding & Supporting Refugees

The funding for the nonprofit comes from donations, government agencies, faith based institutions and even grants.

“We’ve been pretty successful in the long run in terms of seeking funding from the government and foundations. A lot of the government foundations really want to support the integration and cultivation of immigrants and refugees,” said Ameera Basmadji, the director of funds and research development for AccessCal.

Basmadji said the money goes into the various programs AccessCal offers like health services or employment services.

The non-profit also started to receive funding from the county to serve refugees in 2011.

Kayali said prior to the Trump administration her nonprofit served 700 refugees annually but it then dropped to about 100. Basmadji said funding also decreased during this time.

Kayali said with the new administration more refugees could be coming to America.

“This president promised 125,000 refugees will be arriving in the U.S. under the previous administration we only got 11,000,”  she said.

Kayali said around 1,000 of them could be coming to Orange County.

Immigration Services

It’s not just refugees. 

AccessCal also helps people get immigration benefits, reunites families and lately has been dealing with a lot of temporary protected status applicants from certain countries like Syria.

“It’s temporary protection to be able to work legally and to live and to go to school without fear of being deported for a certain time until things subdue in the country that they’re from or they find a path to more permanent immigration here in the U.S.,” said Rania Humidian, the nonprofit’s citizenship and immigration coordinator as well as their Department of Justice representative.

Humidian said while she doesn’t know the exact number of such immigrants in the county it’s a big number.

Access California Services has been providing assistance to underserved populations all over Orange County for over 20 years.

Mental Health Services

Noor Aljawad, AccessCal’s mental health services coordinator, oversees a department of interns who help get individuals and families the therapy they need.

“How a community is portrayed in a society and how engaged we are does have an impact on our mental health,” Aljawad said. “I want to serve our all marginalized communities, but I’m especially passionate about serving the Arab and Muslim community.”

During the pandemic, the nonprofit has offered limited socially distanced in person therapy with masks in a large room but has mostly provided sessions over Zoom which has its own challenges.

Aljawad said that part of how you support a client is through eye contact and body language which is not the same through Zoom. She added that the pandemic has not impacted how they conduct therapy but the lives of their clients.

“They might return, for example, to an abusive spouse because of financial hardship. So there’s an increase in these kinds of cases of children being taken away because there’s been an escalation of conflict due to the financial pressures,” Aljawad said.

Aljawad hopes they can expand the department in the future.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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