International House: You lift me up!
“International House: You lift me up!” These were the words of a smiling gentleman from Sierra Leone, a refugee who had finally been able to find work after the International House legal clinic helped him get back a lost green card. Mr. Morlai Suma raised his arms, the sleeves of his beautiful African tunic fluttering in the breeze. I had asked him what he thought about the help he received from immigration attorney Anne Crotty and International House paralegals. He answered with heartfelt appreciation and a sense of empowerment and pride: “International House: You lift me up!” (To see a news clip about Mr. Suma’s experience at International House, go to our website: www.ihclt.org.) This is what I have discovered International House does best. As I look back over my first six months on the job as Executive Director, I have seen many people like Mr. Suma who have been lifted up and helped back on their feet by the services they received at the place “where Charlotte welcomes the world”!
More at our Door
Since January, 281 refugees and immigrants have already received assistance with naturalization or family reunification procedures, and the immigration clinic staff is on track to provide information or referral to over 1,000 newcomers by the end of the year. This will be yet another record-breaking year, surpassing last year’s number of clients by over 200. This spring, International House has hosted two series of citizenship classes which helped over 50 immigrants prepare for the USCIS citizenship exam, along with naturalization workshops where local attorneys volunteer pro bono legal assistance. In addition, English classes, tutoring sessions and conversation hours have been filled with eager participants with a strong desire to improve their English ability.
Our students know that one needs a basic level of English fluency in order to thrive in American society, as well as to pass the USCIS citizenship exam. We want them to succeed in both. Jelena Held, one of our paralegals, came back from the immigration office beaming from ear to ear. She described Mr. M. from Moldova, a 74-year-old who attended only 4 years of school in his entire life, as he slowly and carefully wrote out the sentence that his examiner read to him in English: “The President lives in the White House.” Jelena had worked with Mr. M. for many hours to help him understand what to expect and to assist him with writing sentences in English, a skill that will help him not only with a test, but with the beginnings of a new life. She said she watched Mr. M. carefully making a “W” and knew he was going to pass. (He did!) We will also be reaching more immigrant children in 2011 through a partnership with Charlotte Mecklenburg School system and Briar Creek Baptist Church as we offer an enhanced version of last year’s pilot summer English tutoring program for children and youth.
Teaching The Teacher
Likewise, we have rolled out a new edition of our basic life skills class, Live, Learn, Grow: Charlotte University, with a “teach the teacher” model of getting critical information to Charlotte’s foreign-born residents. Last month, 40 immigrant community leaders came together for lunch and a learning session on transportation, housing, English classes, legal assistance, the CMS school system, and financial and lending opportunities here in Charlotte. Immigrant leaders from Liberia, Kenya, the Congo, Somalia, Eritrea, Myanmar, Vietnam, Mongolia, Russia, and several other countries heard presentations from community agencies and nonprofits that they, in turn, will share with their communities. Partner agencies included the Community Relations Council, CMS, CATS, Latino Credit Union, and Central Piedmont Community College. Participants were enthusiastic about attending successive sessions covering topics such as health and human services, youth programming, assistance for seniors, and job training.
Citizen Diplomacy: Window to the World
“International House: You lift me up!” These could also have been the words of Humberto Adami Santos, a Brazilian ombudsman and attorney, who came back to International House to speak about his current policy work in the Brazilian government. Mr. Santos was a former participant in the International Visitor Leadership Program several years ago. Moved by his exposure to the civil rights history of Charlotte and to leaders working on race relations, he took ideas and best practices back with him to Brazil where he helped write the Statute for Racial Equality and continues to work at a high policy level on discrimination issues.
International House’s Citizen Diplomacy Program provides international visitors from around the world with a chance to visit American businesses, colleges, hospitals, nonprofits, and government entities, learning best practices and viewing democracy in action. In a world where suspicion and distrust can quickly lead to military engagement, international exchange programs provide a deep human to human connection that counters false perceptions and builds understanding. As someone once said, "It's hard to take up arms against a country when you personally know a family living there who has offered you hospitality and friendship."
International House has kicked off 2011 with a busy schedule of international delegations. Visitors from Saudi Arabia and Syria learned about U.S. approaches to combating human trafficking. Legislative Fellows from Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan visited local and state legislative bodies and law enforcement agencies. Educators from China met with local teachers and school administrators. Guests from Bulgaria, Turkey, Germany, and Latvia studied the U.S. financial system through discussions with bank executives. And while our international visitors were learning, native Charlotte residents also enjoyed insights into other countries and cultures as they volunteered as dinner and home hosts or program presenters.
Center For Intercultural Diversity
Another first: International House introduced “Who’s in the House?”, a panel discussion that allowed some of our international visitors a platform to meet the public and talk about their home countries, as well as their impressions of their time here in Charlotte. Look for the next “Who’s in the House?” event later this summer.
Finally, the first part of 2011 was not without plenty of opportunities for intercultural fun! Weekly Indian Bhangra and Salsa dance lessons were popular with attendees, with about 15-20 attendees per class. “Doorways”, our international women’s group, enjoyed monthly programs that ranged from puppets to dance. The International Book Club discussed a variety of fictional works by foreign authors, and preparations are underway for “A Children’s World of Play” to be held later this summer at ImaginOn.
Where Charlotte Welcomes The World
Life is busy here at International House. Our small staff and dedicated cadre of volunteers are committed to offering excellent service to the immigrants and refugees assisted by our law clinic and educational programs. We see lives transformed on a daily basis as these newcomers to Charlotte become naturalized citizens with better language and life skills, the ability to earn a decent wage, and more engagement in their communities. International House continues to lift up those who simply need a helping hand in order to stand on their own two feet. We also continue to offer top-notch programming to the scores of international visitors who come to Charlotte each year through the U.S. State Department and other national agencies, and we maintain a reputation for excellence that keeps these agencies funneling delegations to Charlotte. That, in turn, not only builds global understanding, but strengthens Charlotte’s economy. We have a respected past, and a great future, and it is an honor to be one of the newest members of the International House team. I love my job! There is a momentum and energy here that is palpable. It comes from knowing that we are making a difference for the better. I can join Mr. Suma in saying, “International House: You lift me up!”