Back in March, the University YMCA announced the establishment of a New American Welcome Center. Champaign-Urbana became one of 12 cities nationwide with such a program. It’s aim is to help immigrants navigate the details of integrating into American society. It also works to develop the surrounding community into a place that is welcoming and inclusive. With the recent announcement regarding DACA, it seems that the work they are doing will be more important than ever. The week of September 15-24, the center, in cooperation with the C-U Immigration Forum and countless other businesses and organizations, will be promoting Welcoming Week. It’s a national initiative promoted by Welcoming America, a Y partner, that brings together immigrants and U.S. born citizens for social events, seminars, celebrations, and more.

The past several months the New American Welcome Center has been focusing on information gathering. According to program coordinator Gloria Yen, they’ve had a variety of “working groups” exploring five “pathways of immigrant integration.” Those include health and well-being, citizenship and civic engagement, language and education, economic integration and employment, and community development. They have been examining the resources currently available in the area for newcomers, and looking for ways to enhance and expand those resources. The community development group has been responsible for Welcoming Week.

“We wanted to do something that is in the spirit of promoting unity and dialogue and understanding,” says Yen, “Welcoming Week allows us to do that through a series of over 35 events done in conjunction with partners in the community from CUFAIR and ECIRMAC, who you would expect to be involved, to campus cultural houses, the Spurlock Museum...we invited everyone from an organizational level to an individual level to really consider what they can do to promote cohesiveness and and spirit of welcome in the community.”

One of the highlights of the week is the Champaign County Immigrant Conference and Benefits Fair. The event is hosted by the Champaign Public Library and the University YMCA, and is a way for newcomers to learn about topics such as how to get a green card, how to apply for citizenship, and what to expect in a naturalization interview from U.S. Citizenship and and Immigration Services representative and a panel of experts. There will also be various representatives from local social service agencies such as Champaign County Health Care Consumers and the Urbana Adult Education Center. Participants can find out what sort of resources are available to them in our community.

Other events are a bit more casual and fun. Yen shares how they invited organizations to take events that are on their regular calendars and incorporate them into Welcoming Week by opening their doors a bit wider and thinking about international populations as they promote. She pointed out the Bahá’í Center, which has been hosting a Cake Night for years, has “broadly opened it this year to be open to anyone from the community to enjoy a night of sweets and getting to know each other.”

Community members interested in learning more how they can help create a welcoming environment will have such opportunities during Welcoming Week. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, and First Presbyterian Church of Champaign are all having sermons centered around what their faith teaches about “welcoming the stranger.” Immigration 101 is an event focused on training those interested in working with the immigrant population to be successful advocates. Attendees will learn about Cultural Competency, Compassion vs. Information, Self-care, and Client-Empowerment.

The culmination of Welcoming Week will be the 4th Annual Welcome Awards, hosted by the C-U Immigration Forum, the Urbana Free Library, and the Cities of Champaign and Urbana. This year’s event is special in that it combines the Welcome Awards, which the C-U Immigration Forum has done for three years, and the Champaign-Urbana International Humanitarian Awards, an event that’s been happening for more than 15 years. Carol Inskeep, the chair of the Welcome Awards committee, explains that the awards were started as “a chance to celebrate the diversity in our community and to hold up people who have been advocates for immigrant communities.” Rachel Joy, who works for the City of Champaign and is a member of the committee, helped merge the Humanitarian Awards with the Welcome Awards, since they realized that they were honoring some of the same work from our community members. This year, awards will be given out for Distinguished Leadership Service, Student Leadership, Community Impact (for organizations),  Business Leadership, International Humanitarian Relief, and International Human Rights Relief. The first four recognize individuals, organizations, and businesses that are working to support the immigrant community here in Champaign-Urbana. The latter two are for individuals who are working abroad to improve the lives of others. 

“One things that’s exciting about the awards is that often (award winners) are people who themselves have emigrated to the community,” says Inskeep. “People who have overcome many of the challenges that resulted in them leaving their home country. Many times their stories are about the warm reception they received here and the ways they turned that situation around to give back.”

In addition to honoring the award winners, the celebration will include entertainment, food, kids' activities, and the event is free and open to the public. It will take place at the Muslim American Society Center from 2-4 p.m. on Saturday, September 23rd.

The New American Welcome Center, C-U Immigration Forum, the University of Illinois, and the Cities of Champaign and Urbana have made it very clear that this community is meant to be one that is diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and supportive. For those that might be feeling the urge to be a part of that and do something to support the local immigrant community, Welcoming Week is a great starting point.