Today, our social fabric is strained like never before. We’re pulled apart by powerful forces, by the physical distance imposed by the pandemic and the psychological isolation of remote work, by the anxiety of economic stressors and the rancor of political polarization.
But we strengthen our bonds when we weave immigrants and refugees into our social networks. They fortify and enrich our worlds with their diversity, their talents, and their eagerness to belong in our communities.
What does it really mean to “belong”? That question was at the heart of a recent Twitter chat hosted by World Economic Services (WES) in honor of the tenth anniversary of Welcoming Week, which took place worldwide from September 9 to 18, 2022.
“Where We Belong” served as the theme to this year’s Welcoming Week so, fittingly, we invited participants to use the hashtag #WhereWeBelong to discuss how we can create rich, resilient, and welcoming communities that truly foster a sense of belonging for newcomers.
Here are six key takeaways from the lively, wide-ranging Twitter chat:
We Contain Multitudes: Intersectionality and Identity
To effectively welcome immigrants and refugees, we must understand that identity is multi-faceted. The act of embarking on a new journey can be thrilling, and the ordeal of fleeing persecution can be harrowing, but neither experience constitutes a person’s whole identity, just as he or she is not defined by the country or culture they came from.
As Church World Services, a global humanitarian organization and refugee resettlement agency, observed, “Refugees and immigrants aren’t simply defined by their experiences, but by their humanity. Without recognizing intersectionality, the narrative around newcomers becomes reductive to their experiences only, rather than their whole selves as contributing members of our society.”
Welcoming America, an organization committed to building inclusive communities, added, “Siloing people into a single identity discourages welcoming and can often feed into negative or false narratives. Acknowledging the spectrum of identities any individual can embody is critical to ensuring that someone can truly feel as though they belong.”
Shawna Garrett, president and CEO of EduNova, an industry association representing education and training providers in Nova Scotia, Canada, drew a parallel with international students, noting that research into international education shows that an intersectional approach to welcoming new students promotes “multi-dimensional friendship networks” and forges stronger connections.
An intersectional view is expansive rather than limiting, layering overlapping identities and varied life experiences into how we welcome new arrivals. As Church World Services put it, “By applying an intersectional lens, we reshape the narrative around immigrants and refugees to one that prioritizes humanity, empathy, and dignity and shows that [they] are ordinary people with dreams, hopes, and ambitions.”
Welcoming Begins Before Arrival
The process of welcoming doesn’t begin and end with a warm reception. It’s helpful to take a systematic approach to rallying strong community, provincial, and state support as early as possible—and to let immigrants and refugees know that people are prepared and excited to welcome them.
Settlement Online Pre-Arrival (SOPA), which runs an online platform designed to help newcomers find jobs in Canada while still in their home countries, explained, “Here at SOPA, we make sure that our clients start building a sense of belonging even before they arrive in Canada.”
SOPA paves the way early by arranging settlement and career support and helping to build connections within new local communities. It also recognizes that welcoming extends beyond arrival, and it continues to assist clients in the days, weeks, and months that follow their landing.
Tear Down Barriers and Build Opportunities
Physical barriers, like a lack of access to public transportation to get to work, school, or even a supermarket, can be daunting. Language barriers can be frustrating and alienating roadblocks. As Welcoming America noted, communities must eliminate both of these barriers to ensure full participation among immigrants and refugees, so they can be involved “in every stage around new and existing spaces and systems.”
Tearing down barriers is not enough, though. Welcoming communities must build cultures and infrastructure that promote connection, such as access to public education, community groups, and government systems where newcomers can not only be seen and heard, but can also play a leadership role.
To this point, Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that helps immigrant and refugee professionals restart their careers in the United States, tweeted, “Welcoming communities create lots of opportunities … for immigrants to contribute to their communities.” Church World Services also emphasized the need to facilitate and actively encourage the “participation of newcomers in community decision-making” that may affect them.
Welcoming Communities Have the Support of Key Stakeholders
Community stakeholders play a critical role in the welcoming infrastructure. As Kathryn Dennler, a research associate at the Conference Board of Canada noted, “Welcoming communities have services for immigrants, but it’s much more than that. When community leaders and local institutions get involved, immigrants are able to thrive and flourish.”
As an example, Welcoming America celebrated community stakeholders in Lancaster, Pa., for their “shared vision and widespread commitment to welcoming.” Through policy, programs, and partnerships, Lancaster has bolstered education, language access, hiring practices, and local business development.
Dennler reminded us that it’s not just about policies and programs—messaging matters. “A diverse range of stakeholders,” from elected officials and community leaders to employers, can foster an overall sense of belonging by sharing “positive messages about immigration.”
Mentorship Forges Powerful Bonds
A strong tool to help immigrants and refugees feel welcome, especially in new work and school environments, is one-on-one mentorship, both Upwardly Global and EduNova’s Shawna Garrett noted.
Linking their tweet to a guide created with WES to help employers welcome Afghan newcomers, Upwardly Global explained, “We believe in mentorship programs. Work is a critical place to create connection and support. Employers empower staff to connect in different ways.”
Citing EduNova’s Study and Stay program, Garrett extolled the “power of mentorship to forge community” in a higher education environment. The Nova Scotia program provides international students with career development opportunities both through one-on-one mentorship and group support.
Digital Tools Can Separate Us—and Bring Us Together
Today, digital technology is woven into our lives as never before. Immigrants and refugees seeking a sense of belonging feel this deeply, for better and worse.
As Garrett opined, “Creating a sense of belonging for immigrants is complex. That complexity has increased with COVID-19. Remote work makes it harder to form social networks, develop a sense of belonging, link social integration to the workplace, and may inhibit language learning.”
On a positive note, Upwardly Global recognizes that advances in technology have also facilitated digital connection and networking, particularly for immigrants and refugees in remote, rural areas. “For newcomers looking to get connected, the digital age opens doors. Networking can be done from anywhere, and our social fabric is expanding to meet new possibilities.”