Success Stories, Calls to Action Discussed at Panel on Immigration
Columbus’ American immigrant population grew by almost a quarter between 2007 and 2012. Foreign-born citizens now make up more than 10 percent of the city’s workforce, and more than 15 percent of the high-tech labor sector.
On Wednesday, a panel of speakers, mediated by Guadalupe Velasquez, Assistant Director for the Community Relations Commission and New Americans Initiative Coordinator for the City of Columbus, came together to discuss the economic impact of these percentages and how to keep them growing.
Community leaders and humanitarians gathered to see Debra Rogers, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Rachel Peric, Deputy Director of Welcoming America, Angie Plummer, Executive Director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS), and Jhuma Acharya, a CRIS Resettlement Case Manager from Bhutan speak on the successes and shortcomings of available refugee resources, and the social responsibility of the common Columbusite to welcome new Americans and assist in their integration.
“Our work as resettlement agencies is to give them a start, give them the tools they need so they can live their lives,” Plummer said. “The longer integration process involves community.”
Attitudes toward immigrants have always ranged from welcoming to hostile; one of the panel’s purposes was to combat distrust by giving former refugees – who are now not just living in Columbus, but are thriving in their own businesses – a platform for their stories, to show the help and obstacles they encountered along the way.
Acharya’s story started in a suburb of Southern Bhutan. In 1992 he became a refugee in Nepal and volunteered as a teacher for the camp’s children. His life in the U.S. started in 2011, after achieving a Bachelor’s degree, as a Rhode Island hotel house keeper. From there he became a teaching assistant in the Providence Public School System, and through connections in Columbus was offered his current job at CRIS.
“The whole of my life as a refugee was so much different than what I experienced coming here,” he said. “I never thought that I would be here one day.”
Families like Acharya’s, first coming to the states, are matched with case workers. Refugee resources are available, but new Americans often don’t even know where to start navigating them. The case worker’s job is to help them acclimate to a neighborhood, find employment, get a license and other identification, register to vote, etc.
But further integration relies on more than just these basics. It takes time and effort on behalf of the welcoming community for these new families to truly adjust to cultural differences.
Sara McQuaide, Dublin Public Information Officer and event attendee, is working with the Dublin school system to reach out to the Japanese-American student population, which is the largest there than any other city in the state.
￼“It’s a big undertaking,” she said. “In the near future, we’re hoping to connect with our partners, Japan-America Society of Central Ohio, to reach out to those populations. They don’t always come to a council meeting or something like that.”
Anyone can participate in welcoming new Americans, said Peric. It doesn’t always have to be advocacy work or lobbying.
“Be curious,” she said. “Find out who’s in your neighborhood. Get to know them; invite them over for dinner. I think you’ll find that you’re able to connect, not only with another person, but with the whole world that’s right in your backyard.”
Photos by Lucy Wolfe.