On Wednesday, July 20th, we went to the Eastman Reading Garden of the Cleveland Public Library on Superior Avenue for a program concerning “Immigration in America” which was just one in a series of programs in the Cleveland Public Library’s “America’s Civic Square” series taking place from July 18th-21st.

On this occasion, Mr. Joe Cimperman, President of Global Cleveland, conducted a discussion on immigration with Ms. Eileen Wilson, Director of Refugee and Immigrant Ministries for Building Hope in the City; Ms. Danielle Drake, Community Relations Manager of US Together; Ms. Veronica Dahlberg, Executive Director of HOLA who in the course of the conversation let it be known that her mother immigrated here from Mexico and her father from Hungary; and our own Mr. George Koussa, Marketing and Community Liaison for Margaret W. Wong and Associates where he specializes in working with the Middle East Community since he, himself, immigrated to the United States from Syria.

Prior to the start of the discussion, Mr. Felton Thomas, Jr., Director of the Cleveland Public Library, said the idea for having this series stemmed from the fact that traditionally, “a library is a place where democracy is put forward.” Plus, he contended that the RNC has generated a lot of “uncivil discourse” so let’s have some civil discourse!”

Here is roughly what transpired:

Mr. Cimperman asked the panelists to share with us one particular thing that they encounter daily or quite often as they do their jobs.

Ms. Wilson talked about an experiment she once did where she assigned 2 U.S. born students to work with one newly arrived refugee student for a brief period. She then asked the U.S. born students what they had learned. They told her that they expected that the international student would be very angry about what had happened to him/her but instead he/she was very grateful and happy to be here. This points to the fact that so often we, who were born here, take the security and the opportunities the United States offers for granted.

Ms. Drake said that she has learned that the refugees that she works with are survivors, not victims, and are thus very resilient people. Moreover, they are just grateful to be alive and want to be productive members of our society.

Ms. Dahlberg said that we need to be more aware of the contributions that immigrants make to our economic system and this is true of even the undocumented. For example, they are an integral part of the workforce of the Lake County nursery industry and contribute a lot to its tax base.

Mr. Koussa spoke of his work with international students attending our universities. All told, there are 800,000 international students in the U.S. on F-1 visa/international student status representing 130 countries and Mr. Koussa, himself, has worked with those from about 75 countries. He cited statistics that showed that international students in the U.S. generate about $25 to $30 billion a year which keeps 200,000 people annually employed.

Mr. Cimperman then asked why, throughout history, have U.S. born people been so afraid of immigrants and what could be done about it.

Mr. Koussa said that knowledge and cultural awareness were at least part of the solution. He believed that once we get to know these foreign born people we discover we have “more similarities than differences.”

Ms. Dahlberg said that she encounters this kind of fear all of the time and it troubles her because it tends to bring down the level of discourse. She cautioned the socially concerned not to get carried away with emotion when confronted with someone saying ugly things about immigrants. Above all, one should do their best to keep the discussion as civil as possible.

Because they work with refugees, Mr. Cimperman asked Ms. Wilson and Ms. Drake what is critical to know when they are confronted by someone who is afraid of a particular group of people coming to this country.

Ms. Wilson said that she asks people how long ago was it that their family immigrated here from another country and what motivated them to do it because perhaps they were discriminated against at one time too. One thing that she admires about refugees is that they are always looking towards the future. She agreed that it is good to bring people of different cultures together to share commonalities.

Ms. Drake says that she does her best to provide a “safe, open space for people to share. Many times those who are afraid are just not aware of the intense screening process that refugees have to undergo which often takes years.

Mr. Cimperman asked how we should respond to those who say that immigrants take away our jobs.

Ms. Dahlberg said that the evidence (and from what we have read, we agree) shows that immigrants are a positive plus for our economy. At the turn of the 20th century, Cleveland was thriving and 3/4 of its population was comprised of immigrants. Now the data shows that Cleveland is losing people and more immigrants might just be the pathway to positive growth.

Mr. Cimperman asked about the “entrepreneurial” spirit of immigrants.

Ms. Wilson said that one must keep in mind that refugees (as well as immigrants who have come here due to dire economic conditions in their countries of origin) really want to work and have wanted to for years while they waited to come here. Thus they are very hard-working. In fact, some work 2-3 jobs doing work that we are rarely will to do to support themselves and their families. Sometimes employers have called her organization to “take advantage of our employment pool.” She believes that they really help our economy and cited instances where successful business were started.

Then Mr. Cimperman brought up the subject of international students and the money that their presence generates.

Mr. Koussa said that these students were excellent in terms of generating business and exposing U.S. students to a different culture. He praised programs that allow U.S. born students to study abroad and thus gain even more experience by actually living in a place very different from what they are accustomed; this will certainly be a good thing to put on a future resume for employment. Mr. Koussa shared a few of his own experiences learning to deal with a different culture when he first came to the United States as an international student years ago. Along the way, he also pointed out that 65% of patents issued in the U.S. could be traced back to the work of someone who immigrated to the United States.

Mr. Cimperman said that Cleveland is a “city of bridges” in terms of connections between the 118 ethnic groups who live here. But right now barriers are being discussed referring to proposals by some politicos who would like to erect a wall between the United States and Mexico.

Ms. Drake said that she didn’t believe in walls because people from her own family were immigrants. She believed it was very important that people learn about their own immigrant experience before they commit to building a wall.

Mr. Cimperman then asked Ms. Dahlberg to talk about her work with people from Central America and Mexico who are fleeing some extreme conditions.

Ms. Dahlberg acknowledged conditions in parts of Central America and Mexico are really bad due to drug trafficking. She then talked about her work with undocumented people and said that it was one of her goals to keep families together by fighting deportations. This is not an easy thing to do. In terms of building bridges, she said that she tells immigrants that it is their responsibility to engage with others and really get to know their communities. Regarding comprehensive immigration reform, we have fought for years for this and it still has not happened. Ms. Dahlberg could really relate to undocumented people who wish they could go home for a short while but cannot because they would risk having their status found out. This is because her own father was a refugee from Hungary and could not return to his native land for many years. She shared with us a few things about her father including his great love for the United States.

It was then time for the Q and A during which the subject of human trafficking was brought up.

Ms. Drake said that it was important to utilize services that can help human trafficking victims who were forced to come here from other countries. Sometime certain refugee agencies can help and the Renee Jones Empowerment Center did excellent work.

Ms. Dahlberg believed that it was important that such victims be able to approach the police for help without fear of deportation.

Another question concerned what people could do to help immigrants/refugees grow more comfortable with our culture.

Mr. Koussa believed that we must all get to know each other better and put forth a message of “peace and awareness.” Different organizations should work closely together to bring more immigrants to Cleveland. We must also do our best to get rid of cultural barriers.

Ms. Dahlberg believed that we must examine the words that we use in our relations with different ethnic groups because sometimes what we say can be unintentionally hurtful.

Ms. Drake said that we should have more dialogues with those who do not look like us. Her own experience is that if we ask people about their ethnic backgrounds out of curiosity, instead of judgment, they are very willing to talk and appreciate the interest.

Ms. Wilson talked about how rewarding mentoring can be. She concluded by saying that we may not be able to save the world but we can help one family grow accustomed to being here.

Before we left, we told Ms. Dahlberg about conversations that we had had with people from the RNC about comprehensive immigration reform. We told her that some have said that we should stop pursuing a path to citizenship and just give the 10-11 undocumented people living in the United States a legal status so they can remain here without the threat of deportation which is what they wanted more than anything.

Ms. Dahlberg said she had heard this proposition too but she didn’t subscribe to it because she believed that the results would be that those who are currently undocumented would become the equivalent of second class citizens. She firmly believed that empowerment was the key to success and a person must be able to vote in order to have power. We couldn’t agree with her more.


Written By: Michael Patterson