Cambodian Queen

Yani Keo flies under the radar of most Houstonians. But if you're a refugee or an Asian-American leader, you know how important she is.

One Tuesday morning Yani recruits the latest arrivals, from Sudan, to help her clean one of the three Alliance warehouses. All morning and afternoon she throws things out, moves them around, consolidates them, dusts. Someone has just agreed to donate 100 mattresses to the organization. But the acquisition of stuff is a complicated matter, the details many. Who will move the mattresses? How many trucks are needed? And where to store them? "If I don't find places for it, I lose it. And we need it." Yani says.

So what if she's 61. Yani will show up in a truck to move furniture herself if she has to. Indeed, she has. The agency doesn't spend one penny on furniture, she declares happily; all of it, including office furniture, is donated. With mattresses in mind, she starts cleaning at nine in the morning. At three, she returns to her office, her voice mail filled, the phone interrupting her conversations, people constantly knocking on her door. In spite of the activity surrounding her, the things that need to get done, Yani's office is peaceful, redolent with jasmine, filled with plants, both real and fake.

Caseworker Khao Vu pokes his head in the door. Would Yani notarize something for him? She is the only notary public at the Alliance, so many citizenship papers bear her name, her stamp. Khao is all smiles. Even his hair, buzzed short and standing up, seems to smile. He explains his job with a grin: "I make everyone American."

Rosharon, Texas: Yani taught Savan Keo (no relation) and other Cambodian refugees how to farm organic Asian vegetables.
Deron Neblett
Rosharon, Texas: Yani taught Savan Keo (no relation) and other Cambodian refugees how to farm organic Asian vegetables.
Community activist: Yani urges parishoners at the Cambodian Buddhist temple to fill out their census forms.
Deron Neblett
Community activist: Yani urges parishoners at the Cambodian Buddhist temple to fill out their census forms.

This business of making people American began for Yani in the early '80s when she found a cluster of 15 unoccupied homes in the northeast end of town and managed to place 15 families in them. A little Cambodian village, she called it. Then she approached the YMCA about starting a refugee resettlement program. There, she hired Kassahun Bisrat, himself a refugee from Ethiopia, as a caseworker. In 1985, Yani and Kassahun incorporated their own nonprofit agency, the Refugee Services Alliance. The Alliance opened its doors in 1986.

Now called the Alliance for Multicultural Community Service to reflect its aid to all immigrants, not just refugees, the southwest Houston agency employs 48 people speaking 15 different languages. The Alliance assists in all aspects of an immigrant's life, from meeting him at the airport to providing health care to driving him to the credit union to open an account. Kassahun estimates that the Alliance has served more than 50,000 individuals. Adjustment usually takes four to five years. The most difficult cases are the single moms who lost their husbands in warfare. "It is especially hard for the mothers, for her to overcome all of this," he says. "In most of the countries, like in Africa, the males are killed. In Asia, too, they have a policy of killing all the men."

Recently the Alliance was just one of 16 agencies across the country to receive a federal grant of $2 million. With the aid, they match, at a rate of two to one, a refugee's savings toward the purchase of a car or home or for education.

Most crucial, though, is when a refugee first arrives. The Alliance houses new immigrants, rent-free, for a month in its "Welcome Center," an apartment donated by a Chinese-American businessman. Other residents at the apartment complex know the immigrants that pass through the Welcome Center as the "Yani people."

"It's Yani!" she says, knocking at the apartment door, checking on the newest Americans. The door cautiously opens to reveal the latest Yani person, a tall, dark-skinned man, Omer Kerim Ali. On the couch behind him, absorbing static American television, is Joseph Tati Haron, 32. And out of one of the two bedrooms shuffles Esako Auqilino Wani, 44, sporting a Galleria baseball cap on his beginning-to-gray head. Each fled Sudan's civil war and met at the Kristan refugee camp in Ghana, where they remained for two years.

The bedrooms in the Welcome Center are sparsely furnished with three king-size beds and a couple of chairs. Internationally themed posters adorn the walls, hinting at the many kinds of people who have lived there. Just 12 days in the United States, the three are optimistic. They will do well, Yani says; they already know English.

Omer has left a wife behind; Joseph, a girlfriend. Yani says the first question she asks new immigrants is if they have family back home. Usually it's easier to bring over one person at a time, instead of a whole family all at once. "When I'm working to bring wife and child over, I'm so happy," she says. "That makes me keep going. I'm always at the airport to meet them. I like to have them together. I went through the loss of family. It's hard to live without family."

In the emotional upheaval of scattered and separated people, Yani has built a new family for herself. "Everybody calls me their mother. Even after they move away, they still ask me to visit." Once she traveled to Washington State to visit former clients.

Yani and Saoroth have personally sponsored many Cambodian refugees. Keo is not an uncommon surname, and she has brought over many families bearing her same name, regarding them as her adopted children. "I lost my brothers and sister. I didn't know them," she says of the refugees. "I just pick, pick, pick."

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