My focus for this term was Immigration and Global Citizenry. I called around to find an organization looking for volunteers, and I found IRCO. IRCO is an organization dedicating to serving refugees and immigrants and helping them achieve their goals and be active members of society. Their work is something I’ve always considered an important thing to do. I’ve grown in pretty diverse neighborhoods and many of my friends are immigrants or first generation Americans. Plus, when you really think about, all of us are immigrants to this country in one way or another, so why not help out our future citizens and neighbors?
During the orientation, I got the impression that the one of the biggest goals of IRCO is helping integrate the communities it serves. I’d like to quickly clarify that the way I understand it, although assimilation can carry negative connotations of forced assimilation, opposition to diversity, or of one’s heritage, that’s not the same thing as integrating communities. For me, integration isn’t about giving up your culture, but rather taking the best elements of multiple cultures and creating something new, something to better yourself and your community. And that’s exactly the kind of thing I like about diverse communities, variety and unity all at once.
To achieve this, the various volunteer programs programs at IRCO are focused on helping people of all age groups. Some programs are aimed at helping kids do well in school, getting teens involved in extracurricular activities, helping college students make their way to educational success, teaching adults essential job skills, offering after school programs so that parents have a safe place for their children until they get out of work, and organizing activities for seniors to keep them from feeling isolated. These are all programs that any of us can become involved in. This all helps in integrating not just recent immigrants, but even families who have been here generations.
This got me interested in seeing how individuals can help out in integrating and getting refugees and immigrants actively involved in the community. Specifically, I was interested in finding out what problems immigrants face, and how we can help them when we set out to volunteer. So I did a quick search online to find some advice. One report that I found from the Migration Policy Institute (you can read it here) bases how well immigrants are integrating in the U.S. five measures: language, socioeconomic, political, residential, and social integration. These are all good indicators, but I decided to set aside the issues of residential and social integration. The reason being that they focus on residential racial/ethnic segregation and intermarriage. Important factors no doubt, but they’re not typically something volunteers work with.
Language is one of the most obvious issues that comes up in conversations about immigration. There are some misperceptions that immigrants refuse to learn English. However, some studies show that the children of immigrants are learning English just as fast as (if not faster than) the previous waves of immigrants. This highlights the contrast between assimilation and integration. Unlike previous waves of immigrants, there is no more pressure to give up one’s native language to be more “American”. New immigrants see bilingualism as an asset in the age of ever increasing globalization. Many strive to raise and educate their children in a multilingual environment. Still, it’s important for immigrants to learn English for several other reasons including: work, school, health care, and communication with local authorities.
Socioeconomic attainment is the second factor considered in the report. This encompasses different factors, such as education, income levels, home ownership, and social mobility. Of course, to be successful in school and work, you need to have a good education. To get a good education in the U.S., you have to know English well. To become a homeowner and move higher up the economic ladder, you need to have a good education. So, everything is interconnected on several levels. So getting a good education and job skills is one thing that is of utmost importance for immigrants and refugees, just like it is for anyone else.
Political integration is the last factor I looked at. This is what transforms immigrants from passive into active, full-fledged members of the community. Voter registration is one obvious ways of increasing participation in political life here in the U.S. But for those who have not yet become citizens, there are still ways to be politically active: organizing and participating rallies, protests, and other demonstrations to make your voice heard. Many churches and other community centers even offer citizenship classes to teach U.S. government and history to those hoping to pass the citizenship test. Keeping our communities informed on issues affecting them is something to consider when looking to volunteer. For those lacking English language skills, bilingual volunteers play an especially important role in building bridges to active political participation.
Now that we know what challenges immigrants face, what can we do to help? How can we help integrate our new neighbors integrate into American society? It’s actually a lot easier than you’d think. The most important is to think about what your own skills are. There are so many different ways you can help using what you’re good at. Find out what interests you, and you’ll have no problem using your knowledge and interests to make someone else’s life better.
Were you good at math, science, geography, or any other school subject for that matter? Then help tutor a student and you’ll be helping not just to raise their grades, you’ll be showing them that they matter and someone cares for them and their well-being. Academics aren’t your thing? No, problem. If you’re you more inclined to arts and crafts, then after school art projects and crafts might be a good fit for you. Giving kids something to do after school not only helps out working parents, it also helps develop children’s creativity. Those are some easy ways to help out school (and even college students).
Senior citizens can benefit from your help too. Many older refugees come here and find that they are unable to find work whether because of physical or legal restrictions. Volunteering for arts and crafts classes is a great option if this is something that catches your attention. These classes, dances, and other events are a great venue for them to express themselves and share their knowledge all while learning from you too. Not only that, besides offering an outlet for their creativity, you’d be helping them feel isolated or lonely.
How to Get Involved
Are you bilingual or a good communicator? Then consider volunteering at English conversation, literacy, or citizenship classes. Language barriers can be tough to overcome, and even if you’re not fully fluent, there are ways you can help English learners. You can also help interpret or assist in filling out paperwork for those who are still learning English. There’s no shortage of ways to help, especially in a city like Portland, where there are opportunities to become involved around practically every corner. If any of those opportunities sound like something you’d like to do, I’d highly recommend IRCO, you can visit their website at www.irco.org. They have programs for all those areas that I mentioned, and now that summer is upon us, school will soon be out and they’ll be needing as much help as they can get!