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Klimek wins Arizona refugee resettlement honors


May 20, 2008

Talk about a road less traveled. Talk about getting here from there and about the best-laid plans. Arizona State University lecturer Barbara Klimek’s journey from a Warsaw University Ph.D. in economics to her current social work focus has been anything but usual, ordinary or traditional.

But it has been award-winning. The Poland native was recently recognized as the recipient of the 2008 Arizona Refugee Resettlement Honors by Arizona’s Refugee Resettlement Program within the Department of Economic Security (DES). The award is presented annually to acknowledge outstanding service by an Arizona refugee resettlement professional.

“Barbara is a force in refugee resettlement because she does such a remarkable job of harnessing her passion for helping refugees,” says Charles Shipman, state refugee coordinator in the DES Division of Aging and Adult Services.

“Refugee resettlement is not an accolade-laden effort, so this award provides a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate our heartfelt gratitude to Barbara. She truly represents the spirit that sustains this lifesaving humanitarian effort in our state and nation.”

Klimek’s route to such recognition is unique. She graduated from Warsaw University in 1979 and won the university’s Rector Award for her doctoral dissertation, “Projection of Qualified Labor Force to the Nation’s Economy and Culture, Using Simulation Models.” Hardly the stuff of which social workers are born, although she has not abandoned her economics roots.

“Apparently, economics never left my way of approaching different areas of interest, including social work,” says Klimek, who notes that her fascination with social work and her passion for helping others led her to pursue a master’s degree after her arrival in the States in 1981. She earned her MSW from ASU in 1992.

“Working for the refugee program has added an additional dimension to the whole mix that is cultural diversity. From this point, the combination of social work, diversity and economics led me to where I am today.”

She was hired by Catholic Charities in 1982 as a temporary, short-term employee assigned to work with people arriving from Poland as refugees. Her skills were so impressive, says Shipman, that when her term ended, co-workers offered to donate their mileage reimbursements to offset the cost of her salary. She was subsequently rehired – without dipping into employees’ mileage reimbursements – and continues to be involved today in all stages of case management services for refugee and immigrant clients coming to Phoenix from countries around the world.

“Initially, my interest in social work was simply my willingness to help others,” says Klimek, who has been a designated field instructor for bachelor- and master-level students from the School of Social Work at ASU’s Tempe and West campuses for the past 15 years. “Catholic Charities provided an excellent opportunity to learn and practice generalist social work – keep in mind that at the time I was living in Poland, social work did not exist as a profession. Working with refugees has allowed me to learn and exercise cultural competence and its importance while working with people from different cultures.”

As defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a refugee is a “person who flees his/her home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war (or) political or religious persecution.” Klimek estimates she has worked with “close to 12,000” refugees during her quarter-century of service, while Shipman says her work has been exemplified by her passion and commitment.

“Barbara is a great advocator and educator,” he says. “She has taken important steps to heighten public awareness about refugees and, subsequently, has garnered great support for them as they transition to life in America. She has played a key role in helping refugees to pursue their educational and career goals and mentoring them in developing the capacity to provide support for other refugees in need.”

Klimek, who says the opportunities presented by social work were so fascinating they led her in that direction rather than the pursuit of a career in economics, is bringing her award-winning experience to the ASU classroom in her College of Human Services social work courses at the West campus. She is developing for the college’s Department of Social Work an elective course, Working with Refugees and Immigrants, that will be offered to social work students in the spring of 2009.

“Seeing refugees who have experienced terrible war trauma build a successful life in their new country has allowed me to teach students not only what theories are all about, but also how those theories can be applied while working with diverse populations.

“What I have learned through all this is that we, as human beings, can live in peace together, respect each other, and enjoy our cultural differences as well as our similarities. I believe that this is the primary message I am applying in my teaching at ASU.”

It is a message Barbara Klimek has traveled circuitously to deliver, but it is also a message that has caught the attention of – and earned her high recognition from – all those who come in contact with her.

“One of the most precious rewards we receive in social work is to see our clients moving forward with their lives and improving their social and economic functioning,” she says. “The resettlement honors is rewarding because it is acknowledgement not only from the clients I serve, but also from the whole community of professionals and organizations working and helping refugees.

“It is, after all, 25 years of my professional life in the United States.”