Observed from September 10th to 19th, Welcoming Week celebrates the communities and organizations that fully embrace new immigrants and their contributions to the social fabric of our country.  

For 30 years, Center for New Americans has been welcoming immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers to Western Mass.  

To Mark Welcoming Week, Zydalis Bauer spoke with Laurie Millman, Executive Director at Center for New Americans, as well as former students, Biani Salas and Mohanad Salman, to learn more about the work the organization undertakes in western Mass and the impact they have on new immigrants.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Observed from September 10 to 19, Welcoming Week celebrates the communities and organizations that fully embrace new immigrants and their contributions to the social fabric of our country. For 30 years, Center for New Americans has been welcoming immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to Western Mass.

To mark Welcoming Week, I spoke with Laurie Millman, Executive Director at Center for New Americans, as well as former students Biani Salas and Mohanad Salman to learn more about the work the organization undertakes locally and the impact they have on new immigrants.

Laurie Millman, Center for New Americans: Welcoming Week is a national initiative to celebrate organizations and communities that openly embrace newcomers and recognize that immigrants contribute tremendously to our shared communities. And that are proactive in their welcoming. So, organizations and communities that are intentionally inclusive.

For instance, we as Center for New Americans, work collaboratively with Cooley Dickinson Health Care, which is an employer that Mohanad, my colleague here, has also worked at. And we have worked collaboratively to make certain that when they interview immigrants for positions that they really need to fill, they need to speak slowly. They need to be flexible. They need to be accommodating.

And if their hiring staff can adapt to hearing what someone whose first language is not English really has to say, they will have a very effective staff and the community will be richer for it. And just think about the patients who will have caregivers who look more like them. Everybody wins.

Zydalis Bauer: The Center for New Americans is collaborating with the Forbes Library to observe Welcoming Week this year. Talk to me about some of the local events and activities that are going on.

Laurie Millman: They have always been a partner in that we take field trips to the library; they help our students to get a library card; they actually host the Career Center in Hampshire County, which is a resource for our students; and they make technology available to our students.

So, they are a community partner that absolutely gets how to reduce barriers for newcomers.

Zydalis Bauer: Let’s talk a little bit about the pandemic this year, because for 30 years, Center for New Americans has been offering services to immigrants, and this is the first time we’re all going through a pandemic. I cannot imagine coming to this country, being in an unfamiliar place, and then experiencing a pandemic.

How have you been able to still maintain this welcoming organization and continue the work that you do during this time?

Laurie Millman: Well, you’re right. It has been very hard and very isolating and very scary for newcomers. And there are several refugee families that were resettled right at the beginning of the pandemic. I mean, we were doing intakes in our building right as the city was telling us to lock down, to make certain that we connected students.

So, of course, everything had to migrate online. But you understand what the digital divide is. That’s very real. That means that people don’t have devices or don’t have internet or don’t have both.

So, what we had to do was to write grants to purchase devices, bring them to people’s homes, show them how to use them, and then purchase hotspots. And this is a place where Mohanad has been very helpful, because he’s come on our staff as a technology associate.

And we’ve had to adapt and accommodate and be creative and be flexible because if people weren’t connected, they were locked out of everything, right? Their children’s schools, health care, and our English classes.

So, you’re right, without that connection, people would have been completely lost.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, Mohanad, let’s go to your story because you were a former student and now work at the Center for New Americans. Talk to me about what brought you to the United States and what led you to this organization.

Mohanad Salman, Center for New Americans: So, as you know, as most immigrants, I have different culture, language, customs, and traditions. Therefore, it’s difficult to engage with this community in the first time and to be part of this community unless their people or institutions support me and guide me to the path of success.

So, this is I found it with the Center for New American. I have, like, the second family here. They support me, encourage me, and guide me to be better. As you know, everything here in the United States, you need to make interview to accept you to a new job. And it’s hard for the people they have the second language, the English as a second language, to explain about your knowledge or your skills.

So, when the Center for New Americans believe you, that is push you forward.

Zydalis Bauer: Biani, you also are a former student now turned employee for Center for New Americans.

What led you to the United States and to this organization as well?

Biani Salas, Center for New Americans: The system in the United States is totally different that the system that you are used to navigate and they take my hand and walk through many different processes with me. So, you feel the company, you feel the support, and you feel — really that you have somebody that cares about you.

Zydalis Bauer: Now Laurie, Biani and Mohanad are just two examples of former students turned employee. You also have some former students that serve on the board of directors.

Why is this important for the organization?

Laurie Millman: Everyone brings a different perspective, and we don’t want to offer services without guidance from people who know more about the journey than we do.

Thirty years of experience gives you some credentials, but everything changes. Everything is evolving — as we all know, having lived through this crazy crisis that no one could have anticipated. And you need guidance, and Biani and Mohanad and our board members help us to stay on the right path or to choose a different path.

But we wouldn’t be effective without constant, ongoing feedback from people who have been there and who can tell us this is helpful and this needs to be addressed.

Zydalis Bauer: And Biani and Mohanad, how does it feel for both of you to be an inspiration for other immigrants and other students that are right now at Center for new Americans?

How does it feel for you to support them the way you were supported?

Biani Salas: It really, for me, it’s an honor because it means that you don’t have to be…you don’t have to be rich or poor, or you don’t have to be more talented or more. You just have to want to want to do the things. That is the most important.

You want to be constant and put effort and you will get to be part of the wonderful community that we are. And at the same time, they start a new life in a country that is more safe, is more welcoming, and at the same time is you have the chance to grow up.

Mohanad Salman: For me in my opinion, to be a successful person, you need to learn the English here. I think this is the first stage to be a successful person in the United States.

But, what you need to keep going and encourage yourself. You need to be motivation, determination, patience, and have a clear vision. All of this, they will get you to be a successful person.

Zydalis Bauer: September 17th marks Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. Laurie, you know that there are many different paths to citizenship, and it’s not an easy process.

What advice do you have for immigrants that are coming into the United States?

Laurie Millman: I think Mohanad and Biani are right. Certainly, learning English is the key to being connected. And I think, you know, I think they gave very good advice: having a goal and then breaking it down into smaller goals, into steps that are achievable — sometimes that big goals seem so overwhelming. But step by step, day by day. And the focus and surrounding yourself with a community that will be supportive.

And you know, we’re blessed in this region; we could not operate with all of our volunteers. There are so many people who have, you know, opened up their hearts and given time to work as as English tutors, you know, do prepare people for citizenship. We hold a naturalization ceremony every year to make it visible for people.

But you’re right, it’s a lot of studying. And tutors, volunteer tutors can help you. So, one foot in front of the other. Step by step, a goal, focus, a vision as Mohanad said.

And having students and clients on our board and on our staff are also to show other students who can be so overwhelmed — especially if they’re asylum seekers, if legal protections don’t always seem available — that people have gone before them and done it, and that there’s a community here to assist and support. And it’s remarkable, the success stories are so inspiring.