When Welcoming Communities Spark Change

In the news of the unaccompanied minors flooding into the United States this year, it would be easy to focus on how the arrival of thousands of children has sparked a backlash from overwhelmed border communities. The numbers are staggering, the needs extensive – how can people cope?

But there’s another way to look at this story, one that has received less attention: many Americans are working hard to welcome the children and ensure they have food, shelter and good care.

Welcoming America is one of several voices highlighting the flip side of the crisis, calling on local communities to be the “moral compass” of the nation, “regardless of what happens in Washington.” Welcoming America’s mission is to promote one-on-one connections between Americans and newcomers as the country grapples with high immigration levels. Among other things, WA designs welcoming initiatives that can be replicated at the state and municipal level and supports grassroots organizations with public engagement and educational programs.

Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Welcoming America, admiring its work from afar. I’ve been reading its material for several years and on one occasion interviewed deputy director Rachel Steinhardt Peric for a story. Her comments about “tapping into the values in a community, not the policy” have stayed with me with me as I’ve watched the organization grow, adding affiliates in state after state and even ending up at the White House for a special ceremony.

Welcoming America is onto something deceptively simple but crucial to the global migration story: integration is a two-way street, and sometimes people need help getting to the other side. We’re talking here about the intersection between old and new, or more specifically, the invisible barriers that create distance between them. People can — and often do — live and work side by side yet remain separated by language, faith, customs or by the very fact of being strangers. Some can bridge the gulf between longtime resident and newcomer naturally and easily, but many don’t, particularly when large numbers of migrants begin to arrive in places that haven’t seen much immigration, “increasing the risk of misunderstanding, fear and divisions,” as Welcoming America says on its web site.

Helping people build connections and understanding with newcomers may seem like soft policy, but it is intimately connected to some hard economic facts. When a receiving country does a poor job of integrating immigrants, everyone suffers. Countries around the world already see this in their racialized unemployment, radicalized youth and polarized debates. In response, many governments duck for cover and focus on intake numbers, social welfare crackdowns and, worst of all, fear-mongering (I’m looking at you, David Cameron).

Other countries recognize the importance of integration measures. Canada, for example, spends almost $1 billion a year helping immigrants settle here. Our settlement strategy is seen as a model worth following, with its language instruction, skills training and help with housing, education and health. So really, our entire country is one big immigrant-welcoming community, right? Well, no.

All the government policies and programs in the world can’t engineer a sense of belonging — for all involved — half as well as simple, everyday talking and living together. Policies can set the stage, but for most of us, what really has an impact on our sense of home is who is around us and how we relate to them. As Welcoming America’s slogan suggests, it’s about “Building a Nation of Neighbors”.

Welcoming America argues that communities that welcome immigrants and work to make them feel at home are communities that thrive. Newcomers feel more committed, invest more in their communities and give more in every sense – their loyalty, their labour, their future.

It sounds so obvious. But over and over again as a journalist covering migration and integration issues, I have seen first-hand how often grassroots backlash to newcomers is based on fear, confusion and lack of information. Yes, there’s prejudice in there too, but most of the time, it’s good old Fear of the Unknown.

In a refreshing change from chronicling to doing, this year I was invited to co-chair Welcoming Ottawa Week, an event designed to encourage more people to reach out and be welcoming. Now in its second year, WOW is a week-long series of lectures, exhibits, screenings and sports events celebrating immigrants and building on their connections. A hard-working team at the Ottawa Local Immigrant Partnership pulled it all together with community agencies. My contribution was Stories and Faces of a Welcoming City, a photo exhibit featuring Ottawans who have gone out of their way to help an immigrant feel at home.

We put out the call for nominations and selected 11 WOW Ambassadors, ordinary men and women who exemplified the best qualities of welcoming citizens. The nominators wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters about the ways their nominees had given them a sense of hope that they could be a success in their new land, freely giving everything from professional mentoring to practical advice – and friendship. We gathered their stories and arranged for an Ottawa photographer to take portraits of them with their nominator, in a spectacular setting with Parliament Hill in the background. The exhibit was on display at City Hall during Welcoming Ottawa Week, and generated much attention in radio, TV and online media.

Nominees were thrilled to be recognized for doing what comes naturally to them, but our main goal was to reach those who aren’t thinking about newcomers at all. We wanted them to see the photos and read the stories and say “I can do that.” Plans are in the works for the exhibit to travel to other locations in the city, to spark more conversation about migration and welcome.

Is this just soft stuff, another way of saying “Can’t everybody get along?” I believe this one way to spark change – by highlighting the ways in which people and communities are compassionate, whether for the child crossing into Texas or the engineer flying into Toronto.

If there are no sidewalks, people don’t feel safe walking down busy streets. If we don’t help people to build connections within neighbourhoods, across cultures and faiths, we are neglecting one of the most important aspects of settlement: feeling at home in your destination.

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