- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 3:01 PM EST
Kasar S. Abdullah is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
Since the 1990’s, Nashville has become a new destination for many immigrants and refugees like myself. As cities and towns experience a demographic shift, some long-time residents have expressed unease and confusion, even fear, resulting in additional obstacles for new arrivals to integrate. In 2006, a group of concerned Tennesseans from different walks of life—business, faith, education, and government—came together for the purpose of intentionally building communities that are more welcoming for new arrivals. The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative is a project run by the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), which is founded on the notion that immigrant integration is a two-way process: as immigrants become more engaged and active citizens, members of receiving communities expand their own sense of identity to make room for their newest neighbors.
I have addressed the unique social conflicts facing our community for many years, and my own story reflects the struggles of many New Americans to integrate. I fled my ancestral home of Kurdistan at the age of six in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s attacks, and spent my childhood in a refugee camp in Turkey. Living in the U.S. as an American Muslim leaves me little choice but to engage others in dialogue about global migration and the rising tensions of religious conflict in my new home. Every day, I am more motivated to find ways for New Americans to fully integrate into the civic life of the broader community, and for receiving community members to better understand why people leave the land of their birth and travel to places like Tennessee. I gain my strength from my faith, my two amazing little girls, a compassionate husband, and the wonderful Tennesseans who strive to know their neighbors and are eager to build strong, integrated communities.
While immigration is not new to Tennessee, each new arrival brings her own unique immigration story. Through my years of leadership and service with TIRRC, I’ve worked with receiving community members to address issues related to immigration and faith through public dialogues, over shared holiday meals from Thanksgiving to Ramadan to Seder, and sometimes by a discussion over some good iced tea. I personally believe that if the human mind continues to be unengaged and remains in a state of ignorance, ignorance has the potential to lead to fear, and fear too often leads to hate. Once hate infiltrates a society, it paralyzes the mind and heart, resulting in the escalation of unbearable social conflicts and violence, as we have witnessed in cultural and religious clashes in Tennessee from burnings of mosques to deportations of families.
Welcoming Tennessee attempts to redress some of the complex issues faced by immigrants in Tennessee, dealing directly with the tensions between US-born Americans and new Americans of every ethnicity, including, but not limited to, Kurdish, Hispanic, Laotian, Ethiopian, and Somali. I firmly believe that a vigorous democracy is defined by the participation of its entire citizenry, working collectively with diverse opinions, to affect the processes that impact our everyday lives. In order for this to happen, our communities must prioritize integration, and recognize it as the foundation of a strong community.
Having had to go through the immigration system myself, I understand the obstacles of integration, the struggles of maintaining an identity, and the imperfections of our immigration system. In addition, I understand well the deep gap between refugee resettlement and adjustment. Today, I’m proud that the successful efforts in Tennessee have led to amazing work that is being replicated all over the US. My hope is that one day the United States will take the lead on integration in our diverse global society.
Kasar S. Abdulla, Former Director of Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (a project of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition)
- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 2:48 PM EST
Jocelyn Skolnik is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
I was born and raised in Guatemala. I moved to Jupiter, Florida in 2003 to attend University. I was nervous about the move. I thought I’d be the only Guatemalan living in this beautiful coastal South Florida community. It wasn’t until my college advisor asked me to assist him with a research project on migration that I learned Jupiter was also home to a growing immigrant community.
Beginning in the boom of the 1990s, jobs in construction and landscaping began attracting migrants from Guatemala and Southern Mexico to Jupiter. Today, Jupiter’s Latinos make up 14% of the Town’s population. But in the early 2000s, most Jupiter residents were only aware of the immigrant community via an open-air “labor market” where groups of men frequently waited to be picked up for temporary work.
As part of the research project, I went door-to-door conducting interviews. Most respondents knew little to no English, were unfamiliar with American norms and customs, many worked in high-risk jobs and they would painfully tell stories of discrimination, wage theft, and crime. I remember one father who told me he was riding his bike on his way home from work and being followed by two local teenagers taunting him. Others told stories of working for weeks without being paid. Several respondents reported that they had been victims of crimes, but feared reporting to local authorities.
The day-labor situation created legitimate human health and safety problems. Residents began to complain about the migrant presence, generating great friction between immigrants and established residents. As a university student I participated in Town Hall meetings where I witnessed these tense exchanges, some with harsh racial undertones. While I was still a student, I began interning with Corn Maya Inc. a small non-profit that served as a precursor to El Sol. We started an ESL program and a pilot labor center. We didn’t have many resources, but I managed to borrow a van and reserve university classrooms twice a week for our classes. We quickly learned that demand for our services was high.
The pilot program, along with the advocacy of a small group of neighbors, community leaders, and university students eventually convinced town authorities to approve the opening of El Sol in 2006. As with most new ventures, the stakes were high and there were many doubts. But when El Sol opened its doors in 2006, we witnessed a rapid and orderly transition from the open-air day labor market to the safe and coordinated system of the Center. El Sol rapidly evolved into a multi-service immigrant integration center, providing vocational training, computer literacy classes, health and legal workshops, and civic education (among other services). Our success stories include workers who are now fully employed, attending university, or who own their own businesses.
An event that transpired at the Center during the holiday season provides a telling example. A worker entered and came up to me as the center was about to close. I asked what I could do for him and he looked down and reached out his hand with forty dollars and said, "When I lost my job I came to the center and I was able to improve my English and find steady work. . . . I know it is not much, but I wanted to give something back to El Sol."
This young man’s gesture captures the essence of what El Sol means to Jupiter. My hope is that other communities may learn from our experience and replicate El Sol’s model.
Jocelyn Skolnik is the Executive Director of El Sol since 2009.
- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 2:44 PM EST
Jan Reeves is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
Although I’ve been involved in refugee resettlement in Idaho for more than 28 years, I was already into middle age before I discovered this transforming work. Many of life’s great opportunities appear serendipitously and the key to unlocking doors, invariably, is to recognize them, understand their nature and act on them with gusto. If you’re lucky, an opportunity will arise that captures your heart and invades your bloodstream. This is what happened to me in April 1985, when I responded to a refugee related job posting in Boise.
Refugees coming to the United States have faced the most severe forms of persecution, dehumanizing violence and degradation, and they bring with them little more than memories and hope. I’ve found nothing more rewarding than seeing people who have faced unknowable adversity rise out of their shattered pasts to find a place of safety and to succeed in remaking their lives. And to have a role in fostering this transformation and to be able to witness such valiant human resilience is a gift, indeed.
Although there are many commonalties between refugees and immigrants coming by other means to the U.S., one difference stands out. There is a unique and ongoing tension between the recognized need for the United States to provide global leadership in the protection of refugees world wide—which includes resettlement as an option—and the perceived capacity of local communities to successfully resettle them. “Successful” resettlement means to assure that the opportunities and motivations are in place for refugees to fully integrate into the fabric of American life—not to give up their heritage and identity, but to bring them to the table.
From the beginning, I was fortunate to associate with many colleagues who understood that unless refugees—and, by extension, other immigrant groups—had unrestricted opportunities to fully realize their human potential, the work would be incomplete. I took from this association a passion for working toward the full integration of refugees into our communities, where they would feel a genuine sense of belonging and where they would know that their talents and abilities would be appreciated and put to good use.
In early 2009, another meaningful opportunity came my way. The Mayor of Boise, Dave Bieter, wanted to better understand how the financial crisis and resulting economic upheaval was affecting the rapidly growing refugee population in the area. He was hearing concerns voiced by constituents and community leaders and wanted to be sure the City was doing all it could to weather the storm. The resulting collaboration between the Mayor’s Office and the Idaho Office for Refugees engaged dozens of key stakeholders, interested community members and other partners to produce the City’s first Refugee Community Plan. In the summer of 2010, the plan was completed and we are now into three years of implementation. The Plan aims to strengthen supports for refugee resettlement in the greater Boise area by mapping resources, assessing service needs, and identifying areas where resources for the effective resettlement of refugees can be better utilized, coordinated or expanded. The central message that emerged from this process was that limiting the number of refugees coming into our community is not the answer; being more strategic to ensure that our capacity continues to grow is.
Being a welcoming community goes well beyond smiles and encouraging words, although these acts of kindness are essential. A true welcome is revealed by the meaningful and myriad opportunities that newcomers find to embrace community, share talents and contribute to the welfare of all.
Jan Reeves serves as Director of the Idaho Office for Refugees (IOR) based in Boise.
- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 2:40 PM EST
Al Heggins is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
If each of us would take a mindful assessment, we’d discover there are many communities in which we have membership. The question I want you to consider (and one I pose to myself often) is “Am I civically engaged in the communities to which I belong?” If the answer is yes, the follow-up question is harder; “What is the proof?”
To prove whether or not I am civically engaged I answer “yes” or “no” to the following three mini questions: Did I stand? Did I speak? Was I heard? These three critical elements of civic engagement are markers for me. To stand up, speak out and be heard means that I am concerned about issues that impact me, my family and my fellow human beings.
I grew up spending time between Kannapolis, NC & China Grove, NC. Both were small mill towns, but one key difference was that China Grove had farms and Kannapolis was urban. My earliest memory of civic engagement is riding in the back seat of my mother’s 1965 black & white Plymouth Fury as she drove community members to the voting polls. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew intrinsically I had to help. I knocked on doors to let folks know their ride had arrived, helped the physically challenged get in & out of the car, and distributed sample voting ballots.
On many Saturdays throughout the summer & fall, my father would load fresh produce grown on our farm in China Grove into the trunk of his two-tone green, 1948 Fleetline Chevrolet. We’d ride down to Kannapolis. Once there, I’d put produce into my red Radio-Flyer wagon and pull it down Carver Street to the homes of the infirm, the elderly, and the families in financial struggle. The price for produce was whatever folks deemed fair or it was free because the week had been money lean.
I share these stories because the experiences translate into my work in a deep way; that each and every living organism on this planet has an appointed duty. Each human life has value and should be honored & treated with dignity. I know that I have a responsibility to all members of my communities. Robert K. Greenleaf coined servant-leadership, but my parents imprinted it into my essence.
In High Point, as we go about the work of fully integrating immigrants into our community, it’s not about creating a special corner. It’s about creating space for the Hindu Temple to be next to the Christian Church, the Muslim Mosque, the Sikh Temple and the Jewish Synagogue. It’s making sure students have access to academic opportunities. It’s making sure immigrants stand next to, speak with and are heard by (while also hearing) non-immigrants in every facet of High Point life. This is what I facilitate through multiple human relations programs; bringing people from culturally diverse backgrounds together…to stand, to speak, and to be heard.
Al Heggins is Human Relations Director for the City of High Point, NC. Her department is responsible for Title VI, VII, & VIII compliance and for fostering positive human relations.
- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 2:17 PM EST
Fatima Said is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
When we hear the word inclusive, many different thoughts come to mind such as togetherness, respect and tolerance. What comes to my mind is investment, as in making a conscious effort to invest in the lives of others. This concept of spreading human kindness and respect plays a key role in my professional and personal life.
As a young woman, I had a good life. My family and I were happy, healthy and relatively safe in our home in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This all changed in the early 1990’s when war broke out in our country and we were forced to leave our home. Fortunately, all of my family members survived and were able to reach safety in other countries. This was when I became a refugee. During our first several months in camp, we were fighting to survive, living a day at a time. After a while, things improved when camp staff began to see the value of investing in us. We were given space to start a school and this helped us to create a more ‘normal’ life, which instilled in us a hope for the future.
When I arrived in Rochester, MN on December 9, 1993, I was amazed at the generosity and kindness of my new community. We were greeted at the airport by a group of people, all new to us. They welcomed us with open arms and invested so much of their time and love into me and my family. It is absolutely impossible to describe how their kindness helped us; it was so motivating to have friends and supporters when we first arrived. Their influence encouraged us to work harder to achieve our dreams and give back to the community.
I am thankful when I think of those individuals today and proud that I am once again in the position to invest in others through my role as Executive Director at Project FINE. We are a small nonprofit organization located in Winona, MN with a huge and powerful mission: to strengthen and enrich our community by facilitating the integration of people who are ethnically diverse. Each day our staff, board, and community partners are working to build inclusion and invest in the lives of newcomers in our region.
We do this in many ways – through educational programming, language services, diversity training, partnership building and community involvement. All of these activities build upon the importance of investing in others and an understanding of the power of goodwill and human kindness. Immigrants and refugees come to our neighborhoods, communities and nation for many reasons, but we all have hopes and dreams and deserve to be respected and have the opportunity to build a better life.
While not everyone has the same background or opportunity as I do, you can still take part in building an inclusive community. Start by being open-minded and look for opportunities to interact with others. Listen to the stories of newcomers in your community and make an effort to get to know them. We all have different cultures, histories and stories and our personal and collective lives benefit greatly from investing in others. I encourage you to think about how you can invest in others – together, our efforts help create a stronger, more inclusive community and country.
Fatima Said is Executive Director of Project FINE (Focus on Integrating Newcomers through Education), a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving immigrants and refugees in Winona, MN and the surrounding area.
- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 2:13 PM EST
Dan Rearick is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
A few months back, I spent a morning volunteering at a local community farm. Uniting NC organized the event as part of a program for longtime residents and recent immigrants to work together serving their communities. As usual, new North Carolinians from all over the world joined us. We had volunteers from Cuba, Sudan, Burma, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Iran.
As we finished our morning of picking greens for the local food bank, I talked to a family from Cuba—a father, mother and their son. Immediately, the father and mother told me, teary-eyed, how thankful they were to be here in a country of freedom and opportunity. I soon understood why they were so emotional when they explained this was their first week in the United States.
Even with all that this family had to do to settle into a new country, a new home and their son’s new school, they were spending the day giving back. “We came to make a better life for ourselves,” the mother told me. “But we are so thankful, and we also want to do what we can to make a better life for others.”
Generations of immigrants made our country what it is today. Most new immigrants come to our country with an American Dream that goes beyond just getting a better job. It includes joining a community who, like the family from Cuba, is open to meeting new neighbors and goes out of its way to help.
Sadly, we have a history of amnesia—with each new generation forgetting what their families went through. Even though we all know how hard it is to meet new neighbors, new classmates and new co-workers, we often shut out newcomers and make their arrival even more of an uphill struggle than it already is. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We have untapped potential in this country. When you’re in a place where people welcome you and show you the ropes, you’re energized and share your own ideas. In neighborhoods, sharing begets sharing. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in neighborhoods where everyone knows each other’s name, and neighbors share their tools and their favorite recipes.
This is what Uniting NC is trying to build. We know immigrants want to meet their new neighbors and give back to their communities, so we develop programs like the community volunteer days. Another program we started helps parents meet other parents and better understand their children’s schoolwork. School by school, town by town, these are the types of programs that help new American families reach their full potential and benefit our entire communities.
Fifty years from now, Americans will still live in a country that immigrants help make great. After all, immigrants are—by definition—willing to dream big and to leave everything behind to make a better life. We as a nation will have to ask ourselves if we helped our own country prosper by treating people right along the way. Did we help them help us make our country even better? Will the children of immigrants win even more Nobel Prizes than they did in the last half century? Will new Americans make even more music that wins Grammys and makes us dance? Will they continue an amazing track record of starting successful businesses and creating jobs? They will, if we welcome them.
Dan Rearick is the Executive Director of Uniting NC, a non-profit dedicated to building communities that actively welcome new immigrants, so that together we can build an even more innovative, prosperous and culturally-rich society.
- Posted byon September 19, 2013 at 2:02 PM EST
Christine Sauvé is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
Welcoming Michigan is one of the twenty-two Welcoming America affiliates’ which organizes activities and uses positive messages to highlight the shared values and contributions of immigrants. Whether you emigrated from Mexico, your grandparents migrated from the southern U.S., your great grandparents came from Poland, or your Anishinaabe ancestors traveled here from Canada, everyone has a migration or immigration story to tell.
I come to this work as the granddaughter and great granddaughter of immigrants and can appreciate the sacrifices and hard work of my immigrant neighbors. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw first-hand the challenges faced by those wanting to move to America to make a better life for themselves and their families. In my travels I have been a stranger dependent on the kindness of others. I am also a community organizer and believe that good things happen when you bring people together.
At Welcoming Michigan I work with local communities to help U.S. and foreign-born residents get to know each other, share stories, and develop mutual respect and understanding. This immigrant integration initiative grew out of the 2010 Global Detroit study and is now a project of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. Since launching in 2012, we have posted five billboards, facilitated four welcoming committees with over 50 members, and hosted more than 60 events that have reached over 3,000 attendees.
We couldn’t have done this without the active participation of dedicated volunteers or “Welcoming Committees,” made up of leaders from community organizations, faith groups, schools, businesses, law enforcement, and city government to organize activities to connect longtime and new residents. Community members engage in dialogue at film screenings, cooking classes, and multicultural celebrations. Committee members set a positive tone in their communities by promoting and modeling inclusivity.
In Detroit I work with community leaders who bring neighbors together through a TimeBank, an Arab community center, and a youth advocacy network. I know young Yemeni immigrants who are always willing to lend a helping hand and build bridges across race and ethnicity. I know African American residents who enjoy meeting their Mexican neighbors at community cooking classes. In Sterling Heights and Macomb County I work with dedicated and forward-thinking city and county staff, refugee resettlement agencies, and members of the business community. In Hamtramck, religious leaders, librarians, and public safety officers care about making their community a welcoming and harmonious one. In southwest Michigan, my colleague works with school board members, migrant farmworkers, and small town residents willing to share stories of welcoming and migration.
In addition to a Welcoming Week proclamation from our Governor, seven Michigan communities have issued resolutions encouraging longtime residents to join with immigrant neighbors in a spirit of unity. We frequently receive requests from folks excited about welcoming newcomers and wanting to get involved. It is heartening to hear so many voices from our Great Lakes State joining in a chorus of “Welcome,” “Marhaba,” and “Bienvenidos”.
Christine Sauvé is the Southeast Communities Coordinator for Welcoming Michigan, a grassroots immigrant integration initiative of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.
- Posted byon September 17, 2013 at 3:19 PM EST
Last week, the White House honored eight Champions of Change, who are leading extraordinary initiatives in their communities to promote healthier lifestyles through Prevention and Public Health. These leaders are helping communities focus on healthy living by expanding preventative screenings, reducing health disparities, and promoting valuable ideas like healthy eating and exercise. They are reducing the cost of healthcare for Americans by helping them live healthier and happier lives.
These public health leaders have made healthcare a priority. Elmer Huerta realized he needed to do more on health education after treating patients for preventable diseases that could be detected early on. Janine Janosky and her colleagues focused their efforts on tackling chronic diseases like diabetes through an integrated health and wellness model. (Read more about the Champions and their work in their blogs)
Providing Americans with access to quality and affordable health coverage has been a priority for the President. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act, called for the creation of the National Prevention Strategy to fund public health initiatives, including ones led by some of these Champions, moving our nation’s focus from sickness and disease to wellness and prevention. Secretary Sebelius points out in her blog that the Affordable Care Act ensures that every American has the opportunity to be healthy by investing in public health – something that affects and connects us all.
However, those who work in public health know that making healthcare available is not enough – just as setting up screening facilities, accessible clinics, bike racks and surveillance programs is not enough. What makes these effective, is health education. A community must understand the options available to them and how these options relate to their personal health and what they can afford.
On October 1st, Americans will want to know more about the new Marketplace, how to enroll and what their options are. Spread the word on getting enrolled in your communities by:
Join the conversation:
- Learn more at marketplace.cms.gov
- Get email updates at Healthcare.gov/subscribe
- Follow us on Twitter @HealthCareGov
Direct people to the official consumer resources to learn about the Marketplace and get coverage and post it on your website: