A Reflection on Working with Immigrant Communities

Dinner and discussion with members of the refugee community in Bautzen

This year, I was part of the Boston team participating in the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE), an exchange program for practitioners from the United States and Germany who work with immigrants and refugees in their local communities. The program annually brings together over 40 individuals from nine communities to share best practices and innovative approaches at the local level, and this was the third and final year of the program.  In May, German representatives from five cities and towns visited Washington D.C., Charlotte, Boston, and Anchorage.  In Boston, our team - which included the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement (MOIA), Hyams Foundation, and the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center (RIAC) - brought our visitors to East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester. I was particularly excited to give our guests a tour of Chinatown, delving into the rich immigration history, the emergence of community organizations and leaders, and the current challenges Chinatown faces.    

At “Ursprung” in Frankfurt, an initiative that engages teenage newcomers through woodworking and crafts.

Three weeks ago, the Boston team flew across the Atlantic and embarked on a twelve-day journey in Germany to learn from our counterparts in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Bautzen, and Teltow-Flaeming, with a closing conference in Berlin.  We met local government officials and nonprofit leaders who have worked hard since 2015 to provide housing, services, language courses, and job assistance to the unprecedented large number of newcomers who have landed in Germany in the last three years.  We visited some of the new housing that had been built with incredible speed (to this Bostonian), and met with volunteers and newcomers and learned about their grassroots initiatives.  Along the way, we also made friends with participants from the other U.S. cities and learned about their local work with immigrants and refugees.   

At “Thespis” in Bautzen, a theater workshop that engages with local German and refugee youth

One thing that struck me in Germany was that I did not hear the term “immigrant”.  People mostly used the terms “refugees” and “migrants” to refer to the foreigners who had landed in Germany in the last three years, and sometimes “newcomers” was used as well.  Germany does not have the long and rich history of immigration as the U.S., and people who we would call second- and third- generation immigrants in the U.S. are classified as having “migrant backgrounds” in Germany.  Words do matter, and “refugees” and “migrants” evoke a sense of placelessness and impermanence.  At the same time, it was heartening to see debates emerging in Germany about German identity and who is/can be a German, just as American society has expanded this concept to people being able to self-identify as African-American, Mexican-American, Vietnamese-American, and so forth.  I was especially inspired by a Cameroonian-German woman and a Rwandan-German man I met, both of whom became elected officials in their respective towns and face racism and discrimination in their daily work. I think back to our city of Boston, where 6 of 13 city councilors are women of color, with Ayanna Pressley having just become a Congresswoman-elect.

The 2018 WCTE U.S. delegation in Hamburg City Hall

Another concept that I struggled with during this exchange is “integration”.  There are many passionate practitioners in Germany and the U.S. working hard to ensure that newcomers have access to the resources they need to settle in and thrive in their new communities.  At the same time, the concept of German “integration” was telling in what Germany society believes necessary for it to continue to be a successful, cohesive whole.  “Integration” above all means learning the German language – as we heard endlessly on this trip – and it was striking in contrast with the U.S. emphasis on providing multilingual access to people with Limited English Proficiency.  On the positive side, integration also means accepting German and western values, including gender equality and LGBT rights. 

At ACDC, because we work mostly with immigrants who have been in the U.S. longer, we emphasize “empowerment” and “resident leadership” and don’t think of our work through the “integration” lens.  While it is important to make sure that municipal governments make their states, cities and towns as welcoming as possible to diverse populations, we believe the people impacted – immigrant and low-income residents – should have seats at the table where policy and funding decisions are being made, because they know best what their needs are and where gaps exist.  We also believe that as benign as any institution is, no one in power willingly shares that or gives that up, and it is up to underrepresented groups to advocate for themselves.  However, ACDC’s work in many ways IS about integrating immigrants – we connect our residents and constituents with the tools and resources so that they have access to mainstream systems of power and resources to thrive.  We register immigrants to become voters and hold voter education workshops so that more of them have access to elected officials; we encourage residents and youth to turn out for community meetings and planning processes so that their voices are included; we work with immigrants on their credit scores and financial literacy to increase their financial well-being and achieve homeownership.      

A final reflection – the most enduring and inspiring parts of this trip that have stayed with me are not the technical parts of the program, but the deep personal connections I made along the way.  In our work, we sometimes become preoccupied with numbers, deadlines, and budgets – the everyday grind – and it can be easy to lose sight of the humanity of the people we work with.  On this trip, we had opportunities to engage more deeply with some newcomers, which for me was an invaluable mental shift from discussing statistics and policies to humanizing the “migrant/refugee” issue, and seeing people not as helpless victims, but humans with the dignity and capacity to be change agents themselves.   

No Secret

Local writer Cynthia Yee shares with us a few excerpts from her new creative non-fiction piece, “No Secret”

 116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.  Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

I grew up in a world of secrets and transgressions, surrounded by mystery, embraced by hope.  Breaking rules was not so bad if somebody loved you.


MaMa was a baptized Catholic, but not for the reasons one might think.  She wanted to adopt a boy.  She learned that, in America, Catholic Charities gave out boys.  MaMa felt it was her duty to provide a son to pray to my Dad in the afterlife, and she had four daughters.                                 

Two nuns visited us and asked about the photos on the wall.  

The first nun pointed to the four photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  

“Who are they?”  “Do you pray to them?”  and then told us we must not do that.  

“They are asking who the photographs are, MaMa.”  “They want to know if you pray to them,” I said.  

MaMa smiled, as if the nuns just could never understand, not in a thousand years. 

The nun then pointed to the sewing machine. 

“Do you sew on that machine?” “Do you sew on Sundays?” and then told us we must not do that, too.

“They want to know if you sew on Sundays,” I said to MaMa.  

MaMa smiled her friendliest smile, the one reserved for Americans, and said, 

Sis-See Dah ah, U li-kee Gar Fe?”  my MaMa’s version of “Sister, you like coffee?” and she offered them fresh cups of coffee with cream and sugar in our best cups and saucers.

After coffee, the nuns got up to leave.  They gave us a present, a framed painting of a pretty white woman with pink cheeks and long brown hair, wearing a veil and a flowing dress, floating above a bush, with a circle around her head, her hands clasped together.  They said, “This is Our Lady of Fatima.”  MaMa smiled, nodded, and took the framed picture from them. She hung it next to the black and white photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  I don’t think MaMa knew the right answers to the nuns’ questions, but whether Immigration or the nuns came to visit, we were now all set.  MaMa believed in the promises of America and in Heavens’ blessings, in equal measure.  

My Dad said, “We don’t need a boy.  We live in America now, and the King of England has a daughter and she is the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth.  Even the President of the United States has daughters.  My daughters are fine.  Cynthia is fine.”  MaMa smiled at me, and said, “That’s why you are a Little Girl Emperor, because your BaBa thinks like that.  Like an American.”


Well, Sally was a sight that made you stop what you were doing, and take notice.  Everybody, up and down my street, had black hair.  Unless they were old.  Then they had gray hair, or no hair.  Sally, on the other hand, had red hair some days, pink hair other days, orange hair, when she felt like it, and on some days, if she got the formula mixed up, she had purple hair with pink highlights.  She wore a lightweight housedress with a collar, four buttons in a row that ran down the front, beginning at her chest and ending at her middle, and a flair skirt that swirled.  Her round breasts hung low, almost down to her waist, and she wore shoes with thick heels. She had the look of a disposable doll, frumpy and well filled out, a doll one would not miss much if it disappeared. On sunny days, she wore sunglasses with bold red frames.  Nylon stockings rolled up at her ankles and red rouge smeared on her cheeks, she looked a bit like the clown I saw at the circus the nuns took us to see, but she was not the smiling kind of clown.  Her face wore an unwavering seriousness, and her walk spoke a focused determination. All the women on my street sewed at home, but Sally did not sew, and she did not stay at home. She followed old men home.

I watched this happen over and over again.  The old man, signaling her, looked to his right, then to his left.  He caught her eye with his eye, a whisper, or a small wave of his hand.  Then he looked away.  He pretended not to know her.  She followed. I thought it a call and response game. The old man slithered off, hands in his pocket, glancing over his shoulder.  Sometimes I felt the signal coming before the man made it.  The old men tried not to look obvious.  That was the first sign.  Trying to look invisible.  I did not blink.  The men slinked away and Sally followed, muttering under her breath.  Never too close.  

Sally’s visits to old men in the attics and rooming houses of Chinatown, and following old men home, made me wonder what she did exactly.  She answered to “Rose” and sometimes to “Mary.”  I wondered if the nuns had named her Mary.  They gave that name a lot to Chinatown girls registering for the public school next to the convent.  Jesus’ MaMa’s name came up when we got toys at their Christmas party, and so did Mary Magdalene, a loose woman.  Children called her Sally.  “Here comes Sally in the Alley!  Three bucks a throw,” we chanted as she walked down the street on one of her missions. No matter that she did not live in an alley.  She lived in a red brick row house, like mine, next to the convent.  We didn’t know what a “throw” meant.  We liked rhyming.  A Lo-Fan, a barbarian, a white woman, a woman with neither husband nor children, living in Chinatown, alone.  Sally stood out.  

This is a work of creative non fiction.   

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration to the United States based on ethnicity.  It outlawed intermarriage and barred paths to citizenship.  The Chinese adaptation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the creation of a system of paper sons, whereby young boys were claimed as legal sons by Chinese American fathers.  These young boys and young men came to work and sent home remittances to support their families and clans.  Though the Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1943, allowing 105 visas per year for the Chinese, the repercussions of this Exclusion Act continued for four generations.  The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 further exacerbated the fracturing of Chinese American families when diplomatic ties between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China were suspended.  The men who came to work became stranded and many lived in the attics and rooming houses of Boston’s Chinatown.

Cynthia Yee, who grew up in Boston Chinatown, honors these sojourner men, many of whom were her neighbors and relatives, and who lived and died alone.  She thanks Alysia Abbott, author of “Fairyland,” and in whose Memoir class, Cynthia originally sketched out the “Sally” story.  “Thank you, Alysia, for reminding me every time we met, how much you liked my Chinatown stories, even remembering my Sally story, long after the class had ended.”  Cynthia also thanks Professor of Narrative Journalism, Mark Kramer, for advising her, even though he said, “It feels l like I am feeding a baby bird who keeps turning its head.”  To him, Cynthia says, “I listened and collected every word from your mouth, like pearls. Thank you.”

Cynthia looks forward to sharing with us her next piece “Don’t Look” soon!

How a new credit scoring system could help immigrant families purchase their first home

The company that created the popular FICO credit score, Fair Isaac Co, announced earlier this week that they will release another version of the FICO score next year called UltraFICO. The UltraFICO could grant access to credit millions of people who wouldn’t qualify for certain loans using the current FICO score, in particular those who have limited credit history.

UltraFICO will take into consideration a person’s assets, including savings and checking account. People will be able to raise their UltraFICO score through maintaining positive account balances in their bank or by using their bank’s billpay features and demonstrating responsible money management. A Fair Isaac rep said that there are 53 million people who do not have a FICO score and UltraFICO will catch upwards of 15 million of them.

ACDC serves hundreds of families each year through housing and financial education workshops. One topic that regularly trips up our clients is credit. We provide credit building seminars to teach people the basics of credit. Because many of our clients have only been in America for a few years, they often don’t have long credit histories and as a result, they have a hard time getting mortgage ready. Sometimes only when they decide to apply for a mortgage do they realize that their credit score is low or even non-existent.

We hope that new credit tools such as UltraFICO will open up more opportunities for our clients on their journey to home ownership.

If you’re interested in speaking with one of our housing and financial counselors for a free 1on1 consultation, please contact us.