immigrants

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.