Welcoming America’s Susan Downs-Karkos on Preparing a Culture of Welcome

May 29th, 2013

Last month we talked to community leaders in Boise (Idaho, USA) and Erfurt (Germany) about programs that brought young people together to learn more about their adopted homes. For American middle school learners, whether recent refugees or native-born, as well as international students and their host families in Germany, the experience meant making new friends, learning about a new culture and expanding everyone’s view of themselves and the world we share in the process.

Bringing newcomers and established residents into contact with each other is an important part of creating a welcoming environment where the two-way benefits of immigrant integration can contribute to healthier, more prosperous and resilient communities.

Cities of Migration asked Susan Downs-Karkos of Welcoming America to share her thoughts on why cities across the US and around the world are waking up to the benefits of diversity and ready to work towards a more open, inclusive and welcoming society:

Recognizing that immigration is a force that can be harnessed for positive community change, cities across the globe are increasingly focused on creating welcoming, immigrant-friendly environments that maximize opportunities for economic growth and cultural vitality and position localities as globally competitive, 21st century leaders. Today, a growing number of cities and municipalities in the United States and Europe acknowledge the economic and social benefits of fostering a welcoming culture. Unlike traditional efforts that may focus exclusively on providing direct services to residents, creating a welcoming environment requires finding ways to overcome language and cultural barriers by promoting stronger connections between immigrants and more established city residents.

The recent webinar Receiving Communities: Preparing a Culture of Welcome is the first in a series of Welcoming Cities webinars co-hosted by Cities of Migration and Welcoming America. Good practices from Erfurt, Germany and Boise, U.S.A. demonstrate the real, practical ways in which municipalities can support efforts that promote meaningful contact and greater understanding between diverse community members, promoting inclusive and vibrant civic spaces along the way.

Erfurt’s program Strangers Become Friends brings together international students and the local community in a unique co-mentoring effort that helps newcomers feel welcome and connected to Erfurt, and opens up the cultural horizons of Erfurt residents themselves. It benefits from growing support from the business sector, which provides internships, mentors and a variety of activities to supplement the program. Boise’s International Summer Youth Program is a unique partnership between the City of Boise, Idaho Refugee Office and Parks and Recreation Department that offers opportunities to foster confidence, cross-cultural friendships and greater understanding between refugee and U.S.-born children in this increasingly diverse city.

During the webinar’s Q&A, both presenters of these programs spoke about a common misconception that receiving communities are not welcoming. In their experiences, people are mostly open to newcomers and intercultural learning when given the right opportunity. Simple, but highly personal, intercultural exchange programs like Erfurt’s Strangers Become Friends and Boise’s International Summer Youth Program are exactly the kind of opportunities welcoming cities can invest in.

“People are actually quite receptive to meet people from other backgrounds. Others need to see the commonalities,” said Jan Reeves, Director of Idaho’s Office of Refugees. “We don’t focus enough on what refugees and immigrants bring to our communities. We have to make the other become the ‘we’.”

In Erfurt, Germany, Petra Eweleit, Project Director of Strangers Become Friends, said that participating German hosts take this opportunity to “to improve their international language skills. They want to learn more about other cultures first hand. For example, they want to learn more about Islam. Media very often focus only on negative things, but our hosts get a different picture while meeting our international students.”

In the U.S., Welcoming America and a number of partners are convening a cohort of innovative, immigrant-friendly local governments like these to join the Welcoming Cities project. Participating city and county governments will connect with their peers through a community of practice that will share good ideas, develop new tools, and receive recognition for their efforts to create more welcoming communities that improve the quality of life and economic potential for immigrants and non-immigrants alike. Welcoming America and Cities of Migration will be working together in the months ahead to feature other good ideas from cities like Boise and Erfurt during upcoming Welcoming Cities webinars. We hope you will join us for these ongoing discussions of Welcoming Cities. For more information, visit www.welcomingcities.org or email susan(at)welcomingamerica.org.

Susan Downs-Karkos is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Welcoming America, where she works with organizations and communities in engaging mainstream Americans in immigrant integration efforts and in promoting a positive community climate for newcomers and established residents alike. She also leads the Receiving Communities Initiative and the provision of ongoing coaching, training and technical assistance to new and existing community partners, with an emphasis on the nation’s refugee network. She is a former national board co-chair of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees and is a member of the selection committee for the Migration Policy Institute’s E Pluribus Unum prize. She is the author of the Receiving Communities Toolkit and has spoken widely about the importance of immigrant integration and strategies for promoting it. Susan holds a BA in psychology from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. 

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