In the fall of 2018, the City of Cedar Rapids and key partners including the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, the Catherine McCauley Center, the Intercultural Center of Iowa, and YPN applied to participate in the Gateways for Growth program. Welcoming Week is part of these efforts and will be celebrated in Cedar Rapids this year from September 12th through 20th.
Welcoming Week is a nation-wide initiative that encourages local support and efforts to engage new Americans and create inclusive and welcoming communities. Making sure that our economy continues to work for all residents will maintain a high quality of life for all members of our community. As WelcomingAmerica.org states, "Through Welcoming Week, organizations and communities bring together immigrants, refugees, and long-time residents to build strong connections and affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive places in achieving collective prosperity."
Welcoming Week Events
In a typical year, we'd have a whole big calendar of Welcoming Week events to get connected, engage the community, and just have fun! This year looks a little different due to the coronavirus pandemic situation.
Local Immigrant Stories
Sihem Abizi came to DeltaV Code School in Cedar Rapids to, as she puts it, change her life.
Sihem moved to the United States with her husband six years ago from Algeria, where she had studied Computer Science. "I had to start from the bottom," she says. "I started working at a retail store, and honestly, I don't know how they hired me. I was barely able to say a word. But I learned a lot there."
Sihem then became a mom. Later, she got a job as a bus driver for the Iowa City Community School District. She loved working with kids every day, but when a friend told her about DeltaV, she realized that she was eager to return to Computer Science. She saw DeltaV as her opportunity to make a change and gain the skills needed for a new career in software development.
"I want to show people that wherever you come from, and whatever your background is, if you want to do something, you can do it."
Vinh Nguyen and his wife, Linh, moved to Cedar Rapids with their two young children in August of 2007, when Vinh accepted a teaching position at Coe College. Linh spoke very little English, and the couple had few connections to the area outside of Vinh’s new colleagues. Fortunately, the welcoming spirit of Cedar Rapids showed itself quickly. One of Vinh’s colleagues at Coe introduced them to the Catherine McAuley Center, where Linh soon began to take English classes and work towards her own career goals.
Two of the most important relationships that Vinh and his family formed through CMC, both personally and professionally, were Bill and Merilee Rosberg. “They were my wife's English teachers at CMC”, Vinh explained, “They also recommended and supported my wife to go to Mount Mercy University for continuing education. They helped her get an internship at CMC, and then a job at the Arc of East Central Iowa.”
After working as a finance coordinator for the Arc of east Central Iowa for five years, Linh accepted a position as a staff accountant at Coe College, where she works currently. Vinh has continued his career at Coe College while also becoming more and more involved at the Catherine McAuley Center. “Two years ago I was invited to serve as a board member and I agreed to do it”, Vinh said, “As a board member I attend regular meetings to discuss, monitor, and vote to approve major plans and activities at CMC. I also serve as a member of the Education Advisory Committee.”
The relationship between the Nguyen and Rosberg families demonstrates the kindness, friendship, and welcoming spirit that exists within our community. It should serve as an example to all that when we work towards building a compassionate and inclusive community, everyone benefits.
“My colleagues at Coe and my friends in Cedar Rapids have helped me go through challenges and achieve a successful and happy life,” Vinh said, “It was very difficult at that time for Linh to learn English while taking care of two little children, but CMC provided flexible schedules so that she could keep learning. For us, Cedar Rapids has become our home, and we are so thankful for all people we have met, and especially for Bill and Merilee who have supported us with unconditional love.”
Standing outside Lupitas Bakery, you’re greeted with the wonderful smell of baked goods even before you enter the store. The variety of churros and other traditional goodies makes it hard to decide what to walk away with. Maria and Javier Gonzalez immigrated to the United States in 2003 from Mexico. They spent some time in Indiana but were enticed by friends to move to Cedar Rapids, Iowa with the encouraging recommendation that it’s a welcoming community and family-friendly place to live and work. The couple worked for several years with a window company until they saved to start their own business. Maria really wanted to own and run a bakery like the kind they were used to getting their baked goods from in Mexico. There were challenges understanding how to build personal credit in order to get additional financing, which is very different here compared to many countries where a lot is done on a cash basis. The first stab at setting up the bakery didn’t fare well, and they went back to the drawing board, continuing to learn and save up to try again. In 2004, the Gonzalez’s attended a State of Iowa program helping diverse companies set up their businesses. Using the helpful information and resources, the couple was able to secure a loan of $23,000 and the rest is history. Maria and Javier have proudly been serving the Cedar Rapids community ever since 2004 and love living here.
Have an immigrant story to share? Please send approximately 250 words and any photos to Jamie Toledo at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Rohan Bhatnagar is originally from Jaipur, a city in India rich in cultural heritage. He spent his school years, however, in Lagos, on the coast of Nigeria (West Africa), where his father took a banking technology job. And, after graduation, Bhatnagar pursued his own professional passion on yet another continent, enrolling in 2008 at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Florida, where he earned an Aerospace Engineering degree and an MBA. “I’ve had an interesting journey,” he says.
Bhatnagar is now a Senior Engineering Manager at Collins Aerospace, where he leads a team of 13 engineers who bring their own stories. “My diverse background has contributed to my success,” Bhatnagar says. “Once you’ve seen so many things in your life, and assimilated into completely different cultures, you begin to understand people really well.”
“Nigeria is a beautiful country,” he says. However, in Nigeria, Bhatnagar saw disease outbreaks, dictatorship, coups, and war. “I’ve driven to school and seen bodies on the road,” he says. When he landed in America at age 18, he was put in a small dorm suite with five other freshmen, “every one of them white and from the United States.”
“Initially it was rough because I was the lone wolf,” he says. “They were not able to grasp the background I came from, the poverty and illiteracy I experienced. But they welcomed me with open arms. They learned a lot about me, my culture, and I learned a lot about them. That really eased the transition for me.”
The pattern repeated itself in Cedar Rapids, where his colleagues embraced him and he met a local woman whose American family did as well. They are now married with a new baby. He is working with local employee resource groups and would like to see Cedar Rapids organizations actively reach out to include other new immigrants.
“People underestimate the importance of a strong social group for a new immigrant in the process of assimilation,” Bhatnagar says. “That group that I had around me — my college friends, my work friends — it was instrumental in my success and in getting me to where I am in the community today.”
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