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City steps up effort to help immigrants: Mayor's wife spearheading program to better acclimate newcomers

July 2, 2007

The burgeoning number of immigrants arriving in Indianapolis have a new source available to help them navigate unfamiliar surroundings and the kaleidoscope of social support systems available.

The Immigrant Welcome Center is a program launched in October that uses volunteers dubbed "natural helpers" to link foreign newcomers to such basic needs as health care, government and transportation services.

Although the effort is nearly 9 months old, it's just now getting up to speed as organizers are interviewing candidates to lead the not-for-profit. An executive director should be named within six weeks.

The center is under the auspices of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, a not-for-profit focused on community improvement, and is the culmination of Amy Minick Peterson's vision to assist the growing multicultural sector.

It sprung from conversations she had with the Latino community during the early years of husband Bart Peterson's first term as mayor.

"I remember seeing this couple who had two young children with them and two grocery bags, and that was it," Peterson recalled. "This is a perfect example of the immigrants arriving. What became evident to me over time is, What are their basic needs?"

The wheels were set in motion with assistance from GIPC and the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, which helped conduct research and focus-group studies with social and civic leaders to decipher what was already available.

Those concluded in 2004, said Peterson, explaining that directors have taken a methodical approach to avoid "re-creating the wheel and stepping on toes" of existing sources serving the immigrant community.

In the meantime, supporters twice traveled to Seattle to observe the natural-helpers program there. Natural helpers are an extension of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national organization that has awarded several grants to the city of Indianapolis.

The Immigrant Welcome Center so far has amassed $5,000 from the foundation, as well as $25,000 from the Central Indiana Community Foundation's Efroymson Fund and $65,000 from the city through GIPC. Private donations have been received as well.

The annual budget is about $100,000 and is earmarked for volunteer training and the director's annual salary. Once hired, the individual will have an office in the City-County Building in space occupied by the city's Division of Neighborhood Services.

Contrary to its name, which organizers are con- templating changing to avoid misleading people, the welcome center won't have a physical presence. Rather, it relies on volunteers to assist immigrants throughout the city wherever they feel comfortable. It's almost as if the helpers are on call.

Staffed by volunteers

Twelve volunteers hailing from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Venezuela completed 26 hours of training in October. Peterson wants to wait at least a year, to work out any glitches, before recruiting another class.

The idea is to match a volunteer from Mexico with Latinos, or one from Ethiopia with Africans, for example, to offer one-on-one support, much like a mentor. The natural helpers are placed in partner organizations such as the International Center of Indianapolis or La Plaza.

Diane Thomas, director of the International Center, has participated in some of the planning and envisions the two programs complementing each other.

"Whereas the center is entirely focused on helping immigrants with their immediate needs, we're focused on advocating for Indianapolis as a global community," she said. "It's a reflection of the growing globalization of our community."

To be sure, 60 percent of the city's foreign-born population entered the United States in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Further, the city's population grew just 5.4 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the Census, but the growth included a 160-percent increase in the immigrant population.

Jonathan N. Lenger, who arrived from Sierra Leone in 1974 to pursue master's and doctorate degrees in psychology, is one of the volunteers. He's counseled new arrivals on educational and professional opportunities, as well as on simpler, everyday needs such as how to obtain a driver's license.

"I think this is a very nice endeavor, because our people from Africa have been neglected many times," he said. "We have to play ... hardball. So, in this type of situation, with people who have been here, we can easily advise and locate people who can help."

Personal experience

The board consists of 10 members, including Peterson and Yvonne Shaheen, a local businesswoman and civic leader, who personally knows the struggles immigrants can encounter.

Shaheen, the middle of three children, was born in Columbus, Ohio, to a Lebanese couple who were brought together through an arranged marriage. Her father emigrated to the United States as a young boy and later returned to Lebanon to meet his 18-year-old bride.

"We were always ostracized," she said of her family during her upbringing. "As a child, you're embarrassed a little bit. We had to learn to fit, but you never really fit in in a community that doesn't really want you. So I have concern for these immigrants."

Matching immigrants with those like them on a volunteer basis, as opposed to setting up the service like a government agency, is a wise move, observers say. Some foreigners, particularly those from Latin countries, distrust authority.

While America's system is vastly different, they still may be apprehensive, said Jim Strenski, a business immigration lawyer at Bingham McHale LLP.

"They may be here illegally, and they're afraid of any sort of government," he said. "If [the center] can put aside the whole immigration status and say they're here to help them get acclimated, it would help those people the most."

Volunteers will help any immigrant regardless of whether he or she is here on a temporary visa or illegally, said Peterson, who is leaving enforcement issues to the federal government.

Immigration reform indeed is a contentious topic these days. U.S. senators are debating a measure that could allow amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Peterson agreed reform is needed, but said she doesn't have any strong opinions on how it should be handled. Those issues, she said, aren't part of the Immigrant Welcome Center's agenda.
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