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Welcoming New Iowans - 2002-03-10

English Feature #7-34778 Broadcast May 7, 2001

The largely rural and largely white population of the mid-western American state of Iowa has an active program of welcoming immigrants and refugees from other countries. About 100,000 newcomers from abroad have settled in the state in the last decade, and many more are expected in the years to come. The University of Northern Iowa has published a guidebook for communities dealing with an influx of immigrants. Today on New American Voices Professor Mark Grey, the author of the handbook, talks about its purpose and some of the strategies it suggests.

Professor Mark Grey says that there is a very practical reason for Iowa's welcoming attitude toward newcomers.

"You know, Iowa is trying to repopulate itself. We're facing a very, very serious shortage of workers here in the next 5 - 10 years. Our birthrates are down, half of our high school and college graduates leave the state when they graduate, and we have a significant percentage of our workforce that's going to retire in the next 5,6,7 years."

In the past ten years Iowa has attracted large numbers of immigrants from Latin America, particularly Mexico, as well as refugees from Ethiopia, Sudan and Bosnia. During this time Mark Gray has worked with dozens of communities in the state as they dealt with the influx of newcomers. On the basis of his experience and research he assembled a set of guidelines to help communities welcome people with different languages and customs who come to live among them.

"This is always a very difficult transition, not only for the established residents but for the newcomers as well. And the purpose of the guide, frankly, is to help communities and newcomers work it out."

In the first part of the handbook Professor Gray lays out fundamental things like the difference between a refugee and an immigrant, the meaning of ethnicity, the purpose of language in human culture.

"What I have found through the years is that if you give people this basic information, and help them understand themselves as cultural beings, then they start to understand newcomers as cultural beings, as well. I spend a lot of time in small communities working with grass roots groups, and one of the things I enjoy most is seeing their faces light up when I help them realize that they are themselves members of a culture. Then you're starting to develop a little bit more empathy for others."

In the second part of the handbook, Professor Gray provides strategies for dealing with an influx of immigrants and refugees. He says that one of the things that successful communities do is form so-called "diversity committees". These are composed of civic leaders, members of the clergy, school representatives, business leaders, and interested citizens. The first goal is to share resources and make their communities more accepting of newcomers.

"Then, of course, these same folks are often involved in the day-to-day activities that it takes to make it work. That's providing English translation, or helping folks learn English, helping them obtain drivers' licenses, helping them obtain housing, and that sort of thing."

Regardless of the good will and helpfulness shown by many people toward immigrants, the process of integrating the newcomers into their communities is not without obstacles.

"My mantra is patience. Change is difficult. It's not easy, even for people who welcome it. And that's particularly the case for rural communities that have been predominantly Anglo for generations, and predominantly English-speaking, and to suddenly have these influxes of people who don't speak English, who may speak as many as a dozen other languages, who look very different, who act very different. And so I think the key for folks is first of all to think of accommodating these newcomers, of taking care of their essential needs, taking care of public safety issues, taking care of human rights issues, and help them feel welcome in the community."

To help communities deal with these essential needs, the third part of Mark Gray's handbook is a 12-page appendix of resources available to immigrants in Iowa. There are names, addresses and phone numbers of everything from immigration business assistance specialists to translation services to ethnic organizations and churches to bilingual newspapers.

"The point was to bring it all together into one source. Over the years people have asked me, well, can you send me something that tells me what we can do, how we can prepare. We've got these people moving in, and we don't know what to do. Well, now I have something to send them."

Of course, different communities deal with newcomers in different ways. Arlington, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington, is trying to accommodate a small group of extraordinary refugees--the so-called "Lost Boys of Sudan", who as children fled their war-torn country, parentless, and then grew up in refugee camps in Africa. Their story next week on New American Voices.