O.C. center for refugees gets expansive new quarters


It started with the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon. Then came the Romanians, the Iranians, the Central Americans and those from the Middle East, all showing up at the little Garden Grove haven they knew simply as the “refugee club.”

Folks at St. Anselm’s Cross-Cultural Community Center offered newcomers the basics: where to find a job, how to write a resume, how to get a handle on America. By the thousands, those fleeing war, poverty or persecution poured in.

Now, this club has moved from its humble quarters — cramped rooms, donated furniture and dim lighting — into a gleaming $3.7-million two-story building in Orange.


And as its headquarters has expanded so have its services: yoga classes, marriage counseling, personal finances, even step-by-step installation of a child’s car seat — the needs of the “modern refugee,” says Vicki Connely, the center’s director.

Inside, the structure spans 30,000 square feet, bought in April from Farmers Insurance. Outside, there’s enough space for annual health fairs attracting nearly 900 participants.

“We’re actually a nonprofit evolving into social entrepreneurs,” Connely says.

St. Anselm’s, for all its offerings, also runs as a business with a staff of 80 and plenty of private and public transportation contracts with city and county agencies. Drivers ferry an average of 1,000 riders a month, many senior citizens, taking them to the doctor, to pick up prescriptions or to adult day care, generating enough income to take the pressure off fundraising.

“We can concentrate on the real reward and work of resettlement,” Connely says.

“Everyone’s important to us,” adds Steve Pham, program manager. “What they find is acceptance and guidance.”

The center — a vision of its Lebanese leader — opened in 1976, a year after Saigon fell.

The Rev. Samir Habiby, who’d served as a Marine in Vietnam, was both stunned and inspired when he returned to Camp Pendleton and saw hundreds of desperate refugees waiting to begin life anew. Habiby, as rector, talked with his contacts at St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church and soon St. Anselm’s Indochinese Community Center, its first name, was born.

Now the workers have similar back stories to the clients at the community center — people from Afghanistan, Africa, Bosnia, Southeast Asia.

Maria Correa, born in Nicaragua, teaches computer lessons in Spanish. One afternoon, she greets a line of women filing off the bus, leading them to parallel rows of donated Dell PCs. Initially, they signed up to access a parent portal so they could see their children’s grades and homework.

Then Correa introduced them to email, followed by search engines.

“I never knew there was this information,” says Veronica Hurtado, a mother of two from the Mexican state of Zacatecas. “When you come to this center, they take us beyond what is inside the door to another world.”