Sun, Jun 03, 2007 - Page 2 News List

Volunteers to help immigrants

`OPEN SESAME' Hundreds of social workers have been trained to help immigrant spouses seek out social services, navigate the city and address domestic problems

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

Cathay Cultural Foundation chairman Fredrick Chien, third left, passes a flag to Eden Social Welfare Foundation chief executive officer Huang Cho-sung, center, at the launch of a joint volunteer program for immigrants in Taiwan yesterday.

PHOTO: FANG PIN-CHAO, TAIPEI TIMES

Huynh Trang Phuong Thuy, 25, didn't know much about her Taiwanese husband before marrying him and moving to Taiwan from her native Vietnam.

Spurred on by a matchmaking agency, the couple went from being acquaintances to newlyweds in a few pen strokes; the first two days of married life, Phuong Thuy said, were fine.

But then her "nagging" mother-in-law went under the scalpel for terminal rectal cancer, leaving Phuong Thuy little choice but to take care of her amid two pregnancies. Not until her mother-in-law died last year was Phuong Thuy "finally able to breathe a sigh of relief."

"In these past five years, I've weathered a lot of trouble," she said of her marriage to her 45-year-old husband.

Nonetheless, Phuong Thuy is doing well -- she speaks Chinese, her marriage is strong and her toddlers are doing well in preschool.

Amid crumbling "cross-border" families and an influx of foreign prostitutes, Phuong Thuy embodies the bright side of surging immigration trends in the nation.

Which is why she has become the poster girl for the Christian charity the Eden Social Welfare Foundation as it gears up to address what its director Huang Cho-sung (黃琢嵩) said is one of the most pressing issues facing the nation -- immigration.

For the past seven years, an average of 12,000 Vietnamese immigrants -- predominately spouses like Phuong Thuy -- have come to Taiwan every year, leaving an ill-prepared government scrambling to deal with the social issues arising from the swelling foreign-born population.

Totaling nearly 80,000, immigrants from Vietnam are Taiwan's largest non-Chinese immigrant group. They are among approximately 350,000 spouses from Southeast Asia and China who call Taiwan home. One out of four infants in the nation hails from a cross-border family.

"It's a huge issue," Huang said.

Huang highlighted immigration figures yesterday at a ceremony marking a collaboration between Eden and Cathay Life Insurance to help "foreign brides."

Funded by Cathay, Eden's "Open Sesame" program graduated hundreds of volunteer social workers at the insurance giant's Taipei headquarters. Their mission: fan out across Taipei to help foreign spouses and their children.

The volunteers' first step will be to assemble in Sanchong City on Saturday to promote their services and reach out to immigrants, Eden official Chu Li-ying (朱莉英) said.

"We hope to make house calls on 1,000 immigrant families [in the coming months]," she said.

Volunteer Carol Huang (黃昭蓉), a recent university graduate, looked forward to hitting the pavement -- even at the peak of summer -- to apply her training.

The graduates, she said, underwent a three-day workshop on counseling immigrants -- mostly Vietnamese wives -- and will begin making house calls next month, aided by demographic data and community contacts. They will help immigrants learn Chinese and interact with their children.

The volunteers -- most of whom are locals with spare time -- are also trained to help immigrant spouses seek out social services, navigate the city and address domestic problems, Chu said.

"They're well informed of the problems and how to avoid cultural misunderstandings," she said.

When cultural or linguistic barriers threaten to hinder local volunteers' work, however, a few "specialists" like Phuong Thuy will tag along to translate, an Eden press release said.

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