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Welcoming immigrants and refugees to the US

By Ann Suellentrop

I accompanied my friend Itto Outini to “New American Dreams,” the 14th annual National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC) Oct. 3-6 at the Westgate Hotel in Las Vegas. Itto is totally blind and an asylee, originally from Morocco. I think she is brilliant! She survived being blinded at age 17, was made homeless for 6 years afterwards, and finally received schooling due to her blindness, whereas she was denied education previously because of being female. She now has a master’s degree in journalism and is a Fulbright scholar. She was attending NIIC as a delegate for Refugee Congress, one of the many organizations participating in the conference but the only group made up of only refugees.

Itto Outini, right, shows off cookies made by Vietnamese refugees, a gift from Itto’s new friend, Valdir Solera, left, from Hawai’i.

Itto was recently hired by the UN to help increase the accessibility of differently abled people worldwide. She was critiquing the conference, at their invitation, as to how they could be more accessible. Itto told me disabled people are often seen as worthless in other countries, but the US government is very good at helping disabled people. Being a nurse, I know we all have “disabilities,” although some may be hidden physical or mental illnesses. I was surprised to discover at the conference that the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies single, childless women over 40 years of age in some countries as disabled because of the way the culture treats those persons!

Much of the conference was about exploring ways that all immigrant voices could be heard and ways the US could be more welcoming and supportive of immigrants. The conference celebrated that they had been able to move President Biden to increase the immigrant quota that had been lowered under the previous administration. The conference had special sessions about Haitian and Afghanistan immigrants, as these groups have recently been in the news. Also heard were the anguished voices of LGBTQIA+ persons, especially people of color, particularly Black transgender women, desperately asking for assistance. They said if you are not speaking up or helping them, you are complicit, and when you know better, you can do better. See below for a list of organizations that help LGBTQIA+ immigrants. Note:LGBTQIA refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual; the plus encompasses other groups.

An Afghan (on big-screen TV) leads the panel on Afghan refugees.

The topic of trauma was discussed, including how to grieve and heal, within and among ourselves. Some examples of immigrant trauma are children being separated from their parents at the border; Haitians being whipped from horseback and deported at the border; and thousands of people camping under bridges near the border, even with women giving birth under these dire circumstances.

Many conference participants said refugees are still connected to their home country and have family there. They want the problems in their home countries to be resolved so they can return there if they so choose. Some refugees told me that freedom of speech in the US is great; they said in their countries, they would be killed if they spoke out against the government.

I am the great-great-granddaughter of immigrants from Europe, mostly from Germany and Ireland, who came to the US about 180 years ago. I remember reading recently that Benjamin Franklin did not consider German immigrants as “white.” And I know Irish immigrants were discriminated against in many areas. So as I listened to the conversations at the conference, I imagined what my ancestors went through.

Parshu Chamlagai (left), from Bhutan, and Itto Outini stand by a panel advertising the National Immigrant Integration Conference.

In the 1990s there was a large number of immigrants from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, and as a nurse I saw how dangerous health care can be without adequate interpreters. I became a certified interpreter through Jewish Vocational Services and later saw how greatly appreciated this was by the patients I interacted with. Today hospitals are finally providing professional interpretation services through iPads or in-person interpreters.

There are many local organizations in Kansas City that deal with refugee and immigration issues. I am a member of a group called AST (Advocates of Silenced Turkey). I helped organize a number of speakers for International Women’s Rights Day on March 8 this year. I have also attended meetings of Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation (AIRR) and have been part of their advocacy work. Currently in Wyandotte County, I have been involved in the Safe and Welcoming Wyandotte initiative that is seeking to provide all residents with an identification card that would improve access to services such as health and education. I have attended Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) meetings, so I wondered how SURJ might be an ally. I later found online an advocacy effort SURJ is involved with for Black immigrants.

World Refugee Day is an international day designated by the UN in 2001 to honor refugees around the globe. It falls each year on June 20 as the world celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. The theme for 2021 was “Together we heal, learn and shine.” Perhaps we could plan a public celebration for next year!

Black Trans Support

House of Kanautica
Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP)
Trans Law Center
Marsha P. Johnson Institute
Okra Project
For The Gworls: donate cash app: $activistrahrah
Audre Lorde Project
Black and Beyond the Binary Collective in Portland, OR

Black Trans/Queer Organizations to work with

National Queer
Marsha P. Johnson Institute
For The Gworls
Audre Lorde Project
Harriet Apothecary

Black Trans organizations to support

Freedom Inc.
Love Me Unlimited 4 Life
Okra Project
For The Gworls
Movement for Black Lives
Audre Lorde Project
Brave Space Alliance in Chicago

—Ann Suellentrop serves on the PeaceWorks-KC Board and is a leader in the KC chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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