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Photo: Alight
The former American Refugee Committee, now called Alight, focuses on “doing the doable.” Alight maintains that when things seem impossible, there is always something good that can be done.

For many years, I’ve been a fan of the American Refugee Committee, now called Alight. Since the nonprofit took the new name and began to focus on “doing the doable,” I’ve enjoyed periodic news about its Changemakers.

Here is the story of a teacher who wanted to understand things firsthand. I will just point out that the term “refugee” is ordinarily applied to those who come here officially, having been screened by our State Department and accepted in advance. Now that the US is accepting so few, those of us who work with migrants are seeing more climate “refugees” and economic “refugees” — some documented, some not. This is the story of a guy who wanted to help them.

“Howdy! My name is Bill Boegeman, and I’m a high school social studies teacher in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Some of my students are from Central America – refugees now living in the U.S., many of whom made the journey to the States alone.

“Their stories are amazing – spending hours in cramped semitrailer trucks and trunks of cars, hiding from the Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert. It’s difficult for me – and my other students – to imagine what these young people have been through, what hardships they have already endured, and the complexities they’re faced with now.

“So I wanted to go see for myself … and to try to make a difference, one day at a time.

“I traveled with Alight to the Rio Grande Valley, a vast area encompassing the southern border of Texas and parts of Mexico. In some ways, it feels a little bit like two countries living in one, cultures blended and economies interconnected. And now, Mexican-American communities are coming together with some incredible changemakers – Catholic Sisters, who Alight has recently partnered with – to serve the new waves of families who are searching for a better life.

“We began our work at La Posada Providencia, a migrant shelter just outside of San Benito, Texas. It’s a landing spot for many migrants released from detention centers with nowhere to go.

“Five years ago, Ángel was one of those migrants.

“After immigrating from Honduras and five months in detention, Ángel spent three months at La Posada where he was provided with a bed, regular meals, and mentoring services. Following a brief stint in Indianapolis, he returned to the shelter as a volunteer. Fast forward a few months and Ángel was converted into a full-fledged employee — the house cocinero — a position he still holds today.

“In addition to his cooking duties, Ángel helps to organize the shelter’s mochilas – to-go bags provided to clients who are ready to move on to their next destination. These bags include non-perishable food items, personal care products, a change of clothes, and other items that will help them along this next stage of their journey. It was here that we saw an opportunity.

“Over a lunch that Ángel prepared, La Posada’s current residents were able to provide us with ideas of items that would be useful to migrants in their mochilas as they depart the shelter for their next destinations. We landed on two primary items that we could provide: Spanish-to-English dictionaries and chapstick. While seemingly unrelated, these two things would be helpful to them in their future journeys (in the case of the chapstick, particularly those headed north). They were also absent from the supply closet on the La Posada premises.

“I asked Ángel what made La Posada Providencia such a special place. ‘It’s more than a shelter,’ he said, ‘It’s a house, a home, a family.’ ”

More at Alight, here.

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Photo: Stitch Buffalo
Stitch Buffalo says it’s “advancing social justice for refugee women in Buffalo, NY, by creating opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and economic empowerment through the textile arts.”

Every individual and every community has its own way of responding to newcomers from other countries.

You would never know it from the headlines, but there are a lot of people who, being curious about foreign cultures or perhaps knowing what it was like for their forebears to be immigrants, feel friendly toward the latest arrivals. Maybe they just smile. Or maybe they work on some integrating initiative, like this charming one in Buffalo, New York.

Maura Christie reports at Spectrum News, “At first glance, it may not seem like much, ‘Embroidery floss, beads, scissors, fabrics, solid colored fabrics,’ said Dawne Hoeg, Stitch Buffalo’s executive director. But these common household items have quite literally bonded refugee women to [the city of Buffalo].

“Stitch Buffalo started as a project back in 2014 as a way to give those women a space of their own to learn and share ideas at different textile workshops.

“Now, five years and a storefront later, workshops are open to anyone in the community and many of the refugees have gone from being students to standing in front of workshops as teachers.

” ‘It’s an exciting opportunity for Buffalo people to come and have an authentic experience learning from a woman from Thailand or a woman from Burma, where she has learned this skill and is willing to share it with us,’ Hoeg said.

‘Some of their stitches are very different from the ones we do and it’s just a beautiful opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange.’

“Women also sell their one-of-a-kind, handmade items in the retail space, anything from pins to bracelets and ornaments. But every two months, that space gets transformed for Second Stitch. The nonprofit uses mainly donated materials, and anything they’re not able to use is sold to the community.

” ‘What we decided to do is to take those materials, sort them, measure them, organize them and turn them back over to the community at a reduced rate,’ Hoeg said. …

“No matter what project the women make next, or how much they sell it for, the love and support they receive from their adopted hometown is priceless.

” ‘It’s the making, but it’s also the selling,’ Hoeg said. ‘When you create something and you see that somebody else finds value in it enough to purchase it, that empowers you, that builds a confidence. That’s what I see happening with the women here is that they are empowered through the skill and the support they receive from the community.’ ”

Find some wonderful pictures at the Stitch Buffalo website, here, and at Spectrum, here.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day. Beautiful Day is a Providence-based welcoming initiative that teaches refugees and other immigrants basic job skills in the process of making a range of fantastic granola products. If you follow them, you will be alerted to new varieties you can buy, and you can read stories from around the country like the Stitch Buffalo story. I like to send their beautiful gift baskets to family members at holidays.

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Photo: Henry Gass/Christian Science Monitor
Volunteers like Luis Guerrero, pictured above, reach out to migrants — after they are released from federal custody and their cases are proceeding — and help them to reunite with families around the country and get legal assistance.

At the end of 7th grade, after we had had a half year each of Spanish and French to get a taste, the Spanish teacher took me aside and begged me to take Spanish in 8th grade and not French. I spouted what my parents told me about French having more great literature, and the teacher was shocked at my ignorance. Still, I wasn’t one to go against my mother.

Today I think if only I could speak Spanish, maybe I could actually be some help as a volunteer at the border — like the people in this story.

The Christian Science Monitor writes, “At the U.S.-Mexico border, our reporter found an army of everyday citizens compelled to offer help where officials cannot.”

Henry Gass, the reporter, writes, “Luis Guerrero has been going to the central bus station here for six years now. He still hasn’t bought himself a ticket.

“It started when he saw a nun trying to help newly arrived migrants passing through the station and offered to translate for her. The migrants have kept coming, so he has kept making the ride to the station.

“Of course, migrants are crossing into this part of Texas in numbers not seen in over a decade. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has already apprehended more migrants in the Rio Grande Valley sector this fiscal year than any other year this century besides 2014. Mr. Guerrero has responded to this latest surge with the calm enthusiasm of a retired firefighter who rescued children from a submerged school bus three decades ago. …

“The zero tolerance policy is no more, but the flow of migrants – primarily families from the Northern Triangle of Central America – has only increased. News and government reports of migrant deaths, as well as ‘dangerous’ and ‘squalid’ conditions in government holding centers, have thrust the issues back into the national spotlight in recent weeks. …

“Immigration lawyers, local officials, and volunteers across the border [have] been feeling the strain.

“Bus stations have been a consistent area of need, and that is where Juanita Salazar Lamb found herself this week after driving down to McAllen from Benton County in northwest Arkansas. She had been following the news coverage of the border crisis, unsure of whom to believe – people who say the migrants need asylum, or people who say they’re exploiting loopholes in immigration law; people who say they’re being treated horribly, or people who say they’re being treated well. …

“Thirteen months ago [Joyce Hamilton] and four friends formed a group, Angry Tias and Abuelas, focused on helping migrants on international bridges and reuniting separated families. The group expanded to a core of eight regular volunteers, and six months ago got a fiscal sponsorship from an Austin-based nonprofit (so it can attract donors even though it’s not yet recognized as a tax-exempt organization).

“ ‘By August [2018] I just really, I didn’t feel like I had a center. I was just shaky a lot,’ she says of the toll her work has taken over the past year.

“As government policies have changed, the group has had to shift where it devotes resources. … In January the administration began implementing Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy also being challenged in court in which migrants may be returned to Mexico while their immigration case is proceeding.

“International bridges are now mostly empty, while shelters in Mexican border cities are overwhelmed with migrants. Ms. Hamilton’s group is now focused on helping at the bus stations and sending money and supplies to shelters in Mexico. …

“Things have slowed down recently in her hometown of Harlingen, Texas. When she arrived at the local bus station on Monday morning – a station so busy on some days this summer she couldn’t hear herself talk – there was only one Guatemalan girl. It was her 18th birthday, so she had been released from the Norma Linda child detention center nearby and dropped off there.

“The girl’s bus ticket – to Georgia, where she says her uncle lives – was for the next day, so Ms. Hamilton arranged for her to spend the night at Loaves & Fishes, a homeless shelter in Harlingen. The 18-year-old says she hopes to work in the U.S. and send back money to support her parents still living in rural Guatemala. After she had crossed the border into Arizona, she spent eight months in Norma Linda, an experience she had only a few complaints about.

“ ‘There were lots of rules,’ she said in Spanish, fidgeting with a bracelet she had made at Norma Linda bearing the names of her grandparents.

“ ‘I made a couple of friends,’ she added. ‘I’m going to miss them.’ ”

As a colleague at my last job used to say about migrants who had made the trek, “People who go through all that sound like the kind of people I would like to know.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Evan Frost/MPR
Mukhtar Ibrahim gives a presentation about Sahan Journal at the Glen Nelson Center in Minneapolis.

When we lived in Minneapolis, we got to know a Somali-American who worked at our apartment building’s front desk and later ran for mayor. He was a friendly, curious man, who enlightened me a good bit about Islam and Africa. As a child in Somalia, he played soccer games interrupted by camels, and he loved to get news from around the world on the radio and then study the map to see where the news was happening.

Today the large immigrant community in his new country has a different way to get news.

Andrew Lapin reports at the Current, “Support from Minnesota Public Radio is enabling a website covering the state’s immigrant communities to expand into a full-time venture for its founder.

Sahan Journal is the brainchild of Mukhtar Ibrahim, who began his career as MPR’s first Somali-American reporter before joining the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He has returned to MPR as a full-time network employee focusing exclusively on Sahan, with the network also providing a content-sharing agreement and other material support.

“Ibrahim said he wants Sahan to be ‘a one-stop shop for all things immigrant in Minnesota.’ …

“Ibrahim began the project in 2013 as a side venture, two years after earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota’s journalism school. The name ‘Sahan’ comes from the Somali word for ‘pioneer’ and traditionally refers to a group of respected men from a community who are chosen by village elders to embark on exploratory expeditions.

“Recruiting other writers of the Somali diaspora, Ibrahim published news and information related to East African politics and culture on the Sahan website. He tapped an influential network of contributors. One of Sahan’s former writers, Mustafa Muhummed Omer, was recently appointed acting interim president of the Somali Regional State in Ethiopia, one of the country’s nine governing regions divided by ethnicity.

“ ‘People were really hungry for that kind of content,’ Ibrahim said, adding that English-language news sources for young professional Somalis were hard to come by.

“As Ibrahim started a family and devoted more time to his day job, Sahan Journal fell by the wayside. … Ibrahim knew he wanted to return to Sahan Journal and broaden its focus to capture more of the state’s immigrant population, including Hmong and Liberian residents. After earning a master’s in journalism at Columbia University with the aid of a leadership fellowship from the Minnesota-based Bush Foundation, he redirected his attention to his passion project.

“Ibrahim found a willing partner for Sahan Journal in his former employers at MPR. Reaching the state’s immigrant communities is ‘the number-one priority for me,’ said MPR News Executive Editor Nancy Cassutt. …

“Cassutt said MPR aims to republish five stories a month from Sahan Journal, edited by an MPR News editor. She also said MPR would like to see Sahan Journal cover immigrant communities across the entire state of Minnesota, not just the Twin Cities. …

“Ibrahim also hopes to make mentorship and journalism education a part of his site’s mission. … By encouraging more immigrants to become reporters, Ibrahim said, the community will benefit. ‘We say there’s a lack of diversity in the newsrooms, but in the beginning we don’t even give people a chance,’ he said. ‘So this newsroom will be a place where people can run, can fail, can experiment with journalism.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: WGRZ
The owner of Sakina Halal Grill, Kazi Mannan, knows what it’s like to be hungry. Thanks to his paying customers in DC, he can give meals to the homeless for free.

Don’t you love successful people who remember how painful poverty and daily anxiety about food can be — and who decide to help others? Tim Ebner reports at the Eater in Washington, DC, about a restaurateur who did just that.

“Come 2 p.m. in many Washington, D.C., restaurants, the lunch rush is all but over. … But for Kazi Mannan, owner of Sakina Halal Grill, the lunch rush is just getting started.

“On a late-Friday afternoon, the door to his Pakistani-Nepalese-Indian restaurant keeps swinging open. A homeless man who is deaf walks through the door. He carries a note. Mannan reads it, then attempts to sign with the man.

“Mannan asks if he wants something to eat while gesturing toward his mouth. The man holds up two fingers and pulls out $2, but Mannan shakes his head no.

“ ‘No money,’ ” he says. ‘You eat for free.’

“That’s Mannan’s policy for every homeless person who walks through the door. At Sakina Halal Grill, the poor, homeless, and hungry eat for free — Mannan calculates he gave away 6,000 meals in 2016 — and the waiters serve them in the dining room, as if they’re full paying customers.

“The buffet-style, halal restaurant, which is undergoing a name change from Mayur Kabab House to Sakina Halal Grill — ‘It’s a tribute to all the mothers around the world,’ Mannan, who lost his mother Sakina, 26 years ago, says of the switch. …

” ‘I’m the little guy on this block,’ Mannan said. ‘And, I love it. …

‘I want to say, “Hey listen, corporate people and people in politics! Listen to me!” I want to show them what love can do, and I want to spread a wave of love that touches the lives of millions.’

“Mannan says he’s living the immigrant dream, in a place where people are likely to take notice. Keeping his door open — which he did Thursday during the #ADayWithoutImmigrants strike — is more than just good business, it’s an expression of his faith. …

” ‘Kazi Mannan: The restaurant has been here for decades. I took it over in 2013 and this really was my dream. I came from a village in Pakistan that didn’t have electricity or plumbing. Our school was completely outdoors. It was always my dream to overcome poverty and own a restaurant. …

” ‘I started working at a gas station off Benning Road in Northeast. At the time, it was a very dangerous neighborhood. I worked there for a few years, and eventually, I saved enough money to start a limousine service; someone told me that I could make my own money as a driver. The funny thing is — that’s where you meet all of the stars of D.C. I still own the company, and I’m very proud that I can provide jobs to people like me, immigrants. Because seriously for me, this is not about the money. …

” ‘My mother taught me to be generous and give with my time. Because remember, we were broke. But, if we had a guest visit, she would make tea and welcome them into our home. She gave everything of herself. …

” ‘I’m a Muslim-American. And I like to believe that when I’m giving to the poor and hungry, God sees that. Just the act of giving a smile to someone can be a blessing. Just think about what food has the power to do. …

‘ ‘The chefs work together … and not only do they make delicious food, but they represent places, which are typically at odds with each other. They come together in this kitchen and use pure love and food. …

” ‘I am proud to be Muslim-American. I am proud to be a citizen of this country. And as a Muslim, I want to show others the true essence of Islam — and that is to love.”

More at the Eater, here. Manna’s initiative seems to be going strong (click here for a 2019 update), which is reassuring as the Eater article is from 2017. I was sorry to see that when Panera tried something similar, a pay-what-you-want model, it didn’t last. (See Bloomberg.) As philanthropic people keep trying to find ways to feed the hungry while running a business, a model that works long-term will emerge. Meanwhile, one kind individual can make a huge difference in many lives.

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Photo: Michał Iwanowski
Michał Iwanowski came across graffiti in Wales that said: ‘Go home, Polish.’ Eventually he did. The
Guardian writes that his 105-day slog restored his faith in the people of a volatile, fractured Europe.

Today’s divisiveness is exaggerated. There are certainly times I chide myself for naïveté, for believing that divisiveness is exaggerated only because I want to. Maybe it isn’t true. Then I read an article like this one about a photographer in Wales who, buffeted by Brexit xenophobia, decided on an experiment.

Sean O’Hagan writes at the Guardian. “On 27 April this year, Michał Iwanowski left his house in Cardiff to walk to his home village of Mokrzeszów in Poland. Carrying British and Polish passports and wearing a T-shirt bearing the word ‘Polska,’ he began his 1,200-mile journey east, sticking as closely as possible to a straight line he had drawn on a map. Over 105 days, it would take him through Wales, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic. Along the way, Iwanowski posted a [diary] on Instagram,. …

“ ‘I saw the project as a way of thinking about the idea of home,’ he says, ‘not least because it would take me from the place I have lived in for 18 years to the place I come from. And I would be doing it at a time when Brexit had made the idea of home, identity and belonging a very politicised subject.’

“Iwanowski had been thinking about walking to Poland for several years, after being confronted in 2008 by graffiti scrawled on a wall in the Roath area of Cardiff, where he lives. ‘Go Home, Polish,’ it read. …

“He often appears in the images, sometimes as himself, sometimes as a generic wanderer lost in an unfamiliar landscape. In one self-portrait, he clings to a tree as if in danger from a threat just out of the frame. In another, he tries in vain to squeeze between two concrete posts – the immigrant’s experience distilled.

“Central to the project was his desire to meet people. It was not always easy. In France, he did not really connect with anyone. In Germany, an enraged local chased him off an allotment he had wandered on to to ask for directions.

“Most of the time, though, it was the sheer energy-sapping doggedness of the undertaking – ‘the drudgery and sweat’ – that tested him as he trudged wearily through often empty, unchanging landscapes. On 8 July, his Instagram post read: ‘On Wednesday I crashed and decided to throw in the towel.’ For a few hours, he sat at the side of a road, dehydrated and exhausted, having thrown his rucksack into the bushes in a tantrum. ‘It lasted a few hours,’ he wrote. ‘I got back up.’ …

“Iwanowski’s long walk ultimately proved both cathartic and life-affirming. … ‘I had become more cynical of late. The experience has banished that cynicism. People are OK. In fact, they are often gloriously generous.’ …

“ ‘Look, I know I am a white male and that I passed quickly through towns and villages, where I was not perceived as a threat. But my experience was so overwhelmingly positive that it has made me question everything I read in the media about the hardening of attitudes that Brexit has supposedly provoked.

I think that a few loud, extreme voices dominate the debate, but ordinary people are stoical or confused – and perhaps a little angry. But they are also decent.’ …

“Has this odyssey changed his way of thinking about home? ‘It confirmed something. I feel utterly at home walking in the landscape, wherever that landscape is. I don’t need to be told by a government, “This is your home.” The ground beneath my feet sanctifies my belonging in this world – not the passport given to me by a country.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Rebekah Welch, Missoulian
Two refugee children hurry to watch a soccer game at Fort Missoula in Montana.

I’m back volunteering with refugees and other immigrants, and it feels great. I took a hiatus to rethink my schedule after my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer. Now I’ll be doing only one day a week instead of three, assisting at a morning ESL class in a Providence resettlement agency and an afternoon class down the street. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile in retirement.

In today’s story, volunteers and staff at some unusually stable refugee programs in Montana feel the same. The article reminds me that my ignorance of much of the country has kept me from appreciating how every state has people with similar values.

In October, Kim Briggeman wrote at the Missoulian, “Montana’s lone resettlement office is just big enough to dodge the ax lowered by the [administration’s] slashed refugee cap, but small enough to escape the staff reductions others face.

“ ‘In Salt Lake City we were staffed to serve 600 arrivals (per year). Well, when you get half of that, you start losing staff,’ Patrick Poulin said in Missoula last week.

“Poulin is acting regional director of 13 International Rescue Committee [IRC] offices in seven Pacific Northwest states, and serves as executive director of the one that opened in Missoula two years ago. …

“The U.S. State Department has ‘pretty much told resettlement agencies’ that offices serving fewer than 100 refugees a year will be shuttered, Poulin added.

“Missoula’s IRC office received 115 refugees in fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30. Poulin said that was up from 78 in the first full year, and included a welcome but unexpected rush of 26 Congolese in July and another 23 Congolese and Eritreans in August. Those represent the top two months for refugee arrivals since the IRC began receiving them in August 2016. …

“The U.S. Secretary of State [announced] in mid-September a proposal to lower the number of refugees allowed into the country from a maximum of 45,000 to 30,000 for fiscal-year 2019. Both are fractions of the 110,000 set by President Barack Obama in his final months of office in 2016, a cap that was ratified by Congress. …

“ ‘This is not only the lowest goal in the history of the U.S. program — the average has been 95,000 — but puts U.S. resettlement, as a proportion of population, well behind Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom,’ noted a guest commentary co-authored by Helena mayor Wilmot Collins that appeared last Monday in The Hill. Collins [is] a refugee from Liberia. …

“Missoula Federal Credit Union (MFCU) … donates roughly 7.5 percent of its annual net income to community programs like these. …

“[Mary Poole of volunteer-reliant Soft Landing Missoula] said it was another reminder of how Missoula Federal and its president, Jack Lawson, have supported local refugee resettlement from the start.

“ ‘We’ve had, I think, three or four meetings with Jack where he’s asking, “What’s next? What can we do beyond money to help?” And of course there’s always an answer for that,’ she said.

“The IRC works with schools and organizations to set up classes such as English language and computer literacy courses to help refugee families integrate into the community. In the credit union’s case, it’s financial literacy support. …

“[Gwen Landquist of Missoula Fed] said a ‘fantastic’ family of Congolese has agreed to be taken under the wing of a financial mentor from MFCU for a year.

“ ‘The husband and wife met at a refugee camp and moved here in July with their three children and one of their mothers,’ she said in an email. …’ The husband speaks about seven languages, including English, and his kids are learning Spanish in school. He has taken some prep classes to prepare for attending school. He is currently employed and is eager to get a car so they can get to church and work.’ …

“A study that came out in July found that the 4,600 refugees and other immigrants in the Missoula region generate more than $26 million in tax revenue each year and contribute disproportionately to goods produced and services provided.”

More at the Missoulian, here.

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