Getting to know the “Girl Next Door”

Nina Davuluri, recently crowned the first Indian-American woman to win the Miss America Pageant, was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about her experience. Davuluri spoke about her feelings of elation and pride, as well as her sadness at seeing the racist tweets that followed her crowning. She also talked about her response to a tough interview question during the pageant:  “So that’s why I said what I did, about always viewing Miss America as the ‘Girl Next Door,’ and that the girl next door is evolving as the diversity of America evolves. She’s not who she was 10 years ago, and she’s not going to be the same 10 years down the road.”

At International House, we believe that the “Girl Next Door” has many faces, and they are all beautiful. Our society is enriched by the diversity of cultures that are part of the fabric of who we are as a nation. This is why America is the country we have chosen to feature at our 25th Anniversary Gala. As Martin Luther King put it, “We may have come here by different boats. But we are all on the same boat now.”

Immigrants and international guests are a valued part of our community. Miss Davuluri won her pageant by celebrating her own roots. She ran on a platform of “diversity through cultural sensitivity,” performing a Bollywood dance during the talent competition.

“I grew up watching Miss America for years and years, and as the daughter of immigrants, I always thought to myself that I could never be that — because I didn’t look a certain way; I didn’t fit the model of what was up there on that screen,” Davuluri said. “And it shouldn’t be about race, it shouldn’t — but it is. To be able to stand up there, and be an example for other little girls that America is now a very different place, that’s everything to me.”

America is a different place, but unfortunately, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment is still very much with us. Just last week, one of our distinguished international visitors, a jurist from Africa, was enjoying lunch with the rest of his delegation at a local restaurant in a small shopping center. He decided to go outside and stroll around but was accosted by an angry man who told him that he looked “suspicious”. The man then proceeded to call the police. Although the police were apologetic after they arrived (and our international guest was extremely gracious), it was still an ugly incident. Fortunately, our guest also experienced the hospitality and generosity that is the true nature of the Queen City, so we believe he left with an impression that was generally a favorable one.

Here at International House, we want to showcase the best of American spirit and values: tolerance, freedom, welcome, and respect. We work hard to help Charlotte’s newest citizens successfully integrate into their new community, and we also strive to build international understanding and appreciation for cultural diversity. “The Girl Next Door”, and her brother, are some of the people we see every day. And we are glad they are our neighbors!

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I Have a Dream: Meet Julio

I-have-a-dream

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Family trauma made Julio’s* teenage years chaotic, but as a young adult he realized that he could be successful and that U.S. citizenship would be a must. Julio’s mother fled Colombia as an asylee and wound up in Ecuador and then Spain where she married his father. When Julio was four years old, he and his family arrived in the United States, but the stress of the refugee experience took its toll on his father. When Julio was seven years old, he returned to Spain with his mother and baby sister. Then at age 12, he returned to the United States to live with his father who had remarried, become a U.S. citizen, and had a new family. With his father working long hours and Julio having significant conflict with his step-mother, his mother’s relatives tried to help by taking care of him on the weekends. Unfortunately, Julio ended up living on his own when he was 16 years old. He made some bad decisions and hung out with the wrong crowds. One day, he realized he could have a better life. So, he found better friends and started working. Finally, his mother was able to rejoin him via a family petition from her own mother. With no one to help him, he applied for U.S. citizenship on his own. Not only was his case denied, but he was afraid that he would be deported and sent back to Spain where he had no family or resources. “That turned my world upside down, right when I thought I finally had things together.”

At this point, he came to International House. His attorney reviewed his entire immigration history and worked out a strategy for him to be naturalized. Thirteen months after that first consultation, he became a proud U.S. citizen. He is a small business owner, selling merchandise as a vendor around the city, and plans to start a second business soon.  “This is my country,” he said. “Before I was a citizen, I was a proud American in my heart.  Being a citizen gave me the peace of mind that I could live here the rest of my life.”

*Julio’s name and country of origin have been changed to protect his identity.

~Learn more about the Ginter Immigration Law Clinic~

Volunteer Spotlight: Micky Fukasawa

Our wonderful volunteer, Mickey Fukasawa!

Our wonderful volunteer, Micky Fukasawa!

Volunteers continue to play an integral part in International House’s success, and one volunteer in particular has stood out over the years, Micky Fukasawa.  Micky has been volunteering at International House for almost ten years; she started soon after moving from Japan to the United States in 2003.  She has taught both English and Japanese in Japan and worked at a travel agency for six years, while visiting thirty-one countries around the world.  Additionally, she was a coordinator at the International Internship Program.  She considers International House the perfect place for her interests and has done numerous tasks for our organization.  Currently, she volunteers every Friday at International House and attends Queens College, while giving piano lessons at home.

Read our inspiring interview with Micky, below!

Can you tell us about yourself?

My name is Micky Fukasawa.  I am from Japan, but have lived in Charlotte for ten years.  I came to the United States because of my husband’s job.  I have a daughter and a son.  I have no other family or relatives in the United States.  When I first came to Charlotte, I wanted to get closer to the community, find my niche and make friends who share the same interests as mine.  International House is the perfect place to know about the community for a newcomer and to meet people from all over the world.

Tell us about your work with International House.

I have worked in the administration department regularly, while also giving many singing performances at events such as at the Volunteer Appreciation Night, the Gala, and the Language Conversation Hour Party.  Additionally, I was a lecturer at A Taste of Tea and Zen ceremony and a presenter at several events such as the ImaginOn Bilingual Storytime, Kids Health Link, and Children’s World of Play.  Furthermore, I have been part of the organizing staff of several events that International House participated in, such as the Dragon Boat Festival, UNCC International Festival, International Fashion Week, and the Bastille Day Festival.

What do you like about volunteering for International House?

I keep trying to assimilate to the American life.  On the other hand, when I come to International House, I feel comfortable with being an immigrant because people there are open to unfamiliar cultures and can empathize with someone from another culture.  International House is a safe environment to me.  I feel good knowing that my volunteer work is valued.  I am glad to help International House’s mission to move forward.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned while volunteering at International House?

I am not the only one who has struggled with blending in a different social life here in the United States.  One might feel intimidated, embarrassed, resentful or confused in their daily life, but they keep moving forward.  This type of thinking empowers me and makes me stronger.

Micky continues to be an instrumental part of International House’s success, and we thank her for everything she has done and continues to do for us!

Charlotte: A New Immigrant Gateway

By: Denise Long, Executive Director

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Ronnie Bryant, Director of the Charlotte Regional Partnership said it well: “We are an evolving southern city.”  For over 200 years, Charlotte has been a quintessential city of the south. Immigrant residents were rare. Consider that in 1980, only 2% of the total population was foreign-born.  But in the last 30 years, Charlotte has become an immigrant destination. Currently, about 11% of Charlotte’s total population is foreign-born. The result is that the Queen City is now a globalized “gateway” city, one with an array of cultures and ethnicities, as well as hundreds of international companies.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a community round-table and luncheon sponsored by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.  This type of community dialogue is also being replicated in other places around the country that are, like Charlotte, new immigrant gateway cities.  The purpose is to bring together local and national partners in order to identify steps to best facilitate the integration of immigrants into our community, particularly as immigrants become key players in the economic vitality of our country.

The roundtable discussion was a small but high-powered gathering that included business leaders, public officials, and community leaders from Charlotte, as well as leaders from other project cities across the nation, including the Mayor of Nashville, Tennessee. We also heard remarks from Ari Matusiak, Special Assistant to the President and Director of Private Sector Engagement at the White House.

As the prospect of immigration reform becomes more real, this kind of dialogue becomes increasingly important.  It is critical to hear voices across sectors and cities as we think together about how to enhance the ways that immigrants can contribute to the economy, as well as the quality of life for all U.S. citizens.  How will the business sector benefit from economic opportunities that arise from new immigration laws that enable workers to fill critical job needs?  How should cities prepare?

Fatima Shama with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York City stated the case very succinctly: “Immigration reform is a federal issue, but immigrants are a local issue.”  It is absolutely critical that local cities and municipalities be pro-active in helping their newest citizens become successful, contributing members of their new communities.

I came away from the meeting glad to see that many of Charlotte’s leaders are eager to affirm the positive contributions that immigrants are already making to our community and economy.  These benefits will be multiplied should key measures of comprehensive immigration legislation be passed.

I also left the meeting even more convinced of the key role that International House plays in Charlotte’s new global landscape.  For years, we have worked to foster understanding and build bridges between Charlotte’s native-born residents and the city’s newest international arrivals. This includes educational programs and legal services that help immigrants successfully integrate into our city and country. We also create global connections through our citizen diplomacy and international visitor programs, providing a lens for viewing our own community in the context of the wider world.   This is good work, and it will be even more important in the days to come as Charlotte embraces her new identity as a truly global city.

Meet A Legislative Fellow: Prih Memon

International House has had the pleasure of hosting special visitors from Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal through the Legislative Fellows Program, a program that brings emerging leaders from around the world to the United States for intensive fellowships designed to broaden their professional expertise. International is currently hosting six female Legislative Fellows from April 17 to May 8. The Fellows are receiving hands-on exposure to various levels of government through full-time fellowships in legislative offices, local government offices, advocacy groups, and various other institutions. The Fellows have been placed with various Charlotte organizations, such as: the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Latin American Chamber of Commerce, and Hand on Charlotte.

One of these accomplished Fellows is Ms. Prih Memon. Read our interview with her below!

Prih-Memon

Prih Memon

Can you tell us more about yourself?

My name is Prih, and I am from Sindh, Pakistan. I am currently doing a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), and I have a Bachelors degree in Business Administration with a specialization in HR. During my undergraduate studies, I was always involved in extracurricular activities as an event organizer and trainer focusing on education and advocacy. For example, in my final year of college, I organized and led a national mega conference for Hyderabad youth with 250 people in attendance.

I started my job as Program Officer at the Civil Society Support Program. The Civil Society Support Program (CSSP) is a nonprofit organization that emerged as a response to the challenges facing by Pakistan, including: poverty, social injustice, and governance issues. I’ve also been working with Drug Free Pakistan as a youth mobilizer and volunteer. Soon after, I was selected to work for project called Alif Ailaan, which focuses on transforming education in Pakistan. For example, one of Alif Ailaan’s goals is to help bring education to rural areas that do not have access to proper education.

Talk to us about Alif Ailaan. What is your role with the organization?

In a nutshell, Alif Ailaan is a Pakistani alliance for education reform led by a communications campaign. We campaign as a broad coalition of people and organizations committed to getting more of our children in school. Alif Ailaan selects regional coordinators to work with rural communities. I am currently a regional coordinator  and my role is to recruit and interview youth activists. I have a team of 30 youth activists working with me now. My team and I visit schools and teachers to learn about core education challenges. In our campaign, we bring in political leaders, media contacts, NGO’s to learn about their views on education, which helps us highlight core issues in communications campaign. We also use marketing materials to spread the word about our campaign and bring to it to different institutions like universities. Our vision is to campaign for education reform in time for elections in 2018.

Prih-Cooking

Prih cooking a traditional Pakistani meal with her host mom, Ann Wood.

How has your experience been in Charlotte?

We love Charlotte! Everybody is so kind, and our hosts families are loving. We are learning so much about American culture, politics, and education. We had many opportunities to explore Charlotte. We visited the Mecklenburg County Court, Levine Museum of the New South, and Crisis Assistance Ministry. We are enjoying our visit very much, and we hope we can come back again!

April Fool: Myths About Immigrants

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By: Denise Long, Executive Director

“Immigrants don’t want to assimilate and learn English.”

There are a lot of myths floating around out there about immigrants who come to Charlotte and other cities across the U.S.  This is one of them. Unfortunately, repetition of misinformation can often fuel the fires of anti-immigrant sentiment and even racism. It is  important that organizations like International House and others serving Charlotte’s immigrant communities lift up our voices to offer facts that counteract some of these stereotypes and misconceptions.

How often have you heard a comment like this?  “Immigrants aren’t interested in fitting into our society. They don’t want to learn English or become Americans. My grandparents were immigrants, and they had to work hard to learn English and to assimilate. Today’s immigrants should do the same.”  Well, the reality is that most immigrants today ARE working hard to learn English and adapt to their new country. Within 10 years of their arrival, over 75% of immigrants speak English well. However, many work two or more jobs, have few financial resources or need child care in order to take an ESL class. English language programs in the United States are insufficient to meet the demand. It is estimated that more than 90,000 immigrants across the nation are on waiting lists to learn English.

Here at International House, we can testify to the desire of Charlotte’s immigrant community to learn English. Stop by one of our weekly ESL classes. You will see an array of eager students from countries around the world hard at work to learn a language they know they must master in order to succeed.  There is a local baker from Honduras, a former engineer from Iran, a night-shift worker from Laos, a young widow from Mexico, a newcomer from Haiti, a grandmother from Peru, and refugees from Vietnam, Somalia, and Bhutan.

International House’s educational programs are highly regarded and sought out by many immigrants who don’t want a hand out, but simply a “hand up”, i.e. the tools they know they need in order to better integrate into their community. Our ESL classes, one-on-one tutoring program, citizenship classes, and basic life skills workshops are all filled by some of Charlotte’s newest residents who are seeking the American Dream, just like the rest of us. They want to become U.S. citizens in spite of difficult requirements and long delays.

The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born today is about 12%. In the early 20th century, it was about 15%. Immigrants who arrived here 100 years ago faced similar types of discrimination and suspicion as those coming here today, but history shows that they successfully assimilated into our culture and country. Today’s newcomers are adjusting and blending into U.S. society at the same rate as previous generations of immigrants. Let’s give them a chance and salute them for their hard work to learn English and provide for their families. We are glad they are here!