116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / Opinion / Staff Columnists
Iowan identity must have room for newcomers
There is a shared identity among those who call Iowa home. Behaviors and traditions that when transplanted sometimes cause confusion and alarm. (Why is this woman I don’t know talking to me in the produce section? Why does my compliment on your shirt require an explanation of the discount you received on its purchase? What is an “ope”?) A collective identity that, once realized between two strangers in a strange land, causes us to take hold of each other on a public street in New Orleans as though we have known each other all of our lives. “Cedar Rapids!?” my new best friend on Canal Street exclaims. “I’m from Waverly!”
These moments feel right. Thank GOD, someone who knows that when it dumps a foot and a half on Sunday night, you snowblow the neighbor’s house if you woke up first. Shoot, you do the block if you have enough coffee in you. We know what to expect. We might be able to guess what dishes are on their table at the holidays, and that after they finish the Thanksgiving meal the game will be on. The way the mouth forms sound is familiar, and safe, and nostalgic. The accent they send television journalists here to perfect, we tell ourselves.
Around the world, the concept of ‘home’ is being torn to shreds. Ukraine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, the list of nations where people are being actively displaced from their community seems to grow by the day. Those who manage to escape the danger are often thrown into a world that is very different from everything they have ever known. Newcomers may have left loved ones behind, may have lost careers they have spent decades preparing for and perfecting, may have lost the kind of stability that took generations to build.
Nearly half of the population growth in Linn County is due to immigration. The reasons for that immigration vary. Some have waited years and entered a lottery system to enter the United States seeking economic opportunity. Some are pursuing education. For those who are leaving war-torn nations that are no longer safe, there may not have been time to plan and save and study the place that would very quickly become their home.
One common path to achieving economic stability and growth is entrepreneurship. This, too, can come with a learning curve for people who have emigrated from countries with different regulations, licenses, systems of education, and processes. The team at NewBo City Market has been working diligently to build programs designed to support immigrants in entrepreneurial endeavors. One of these is called Pilot Light. A partnership with Linn County Public Health, Pilot Light provides new restaurateurs with education in food code and regulations, how to work with professional kitchen equipment in a fully equipped onsite facility, ServSafe and food handlers certification. Additionally, NewBo City Market picks up the cost of the first year of food licensure - removing what has been a barrier for emerging restaurants. “Unfortunately, because of a lack of information about how food service is regulated differently in this country and how to achieve those requirements, some restaurants were being shut down,” explained NewBo City Market Executive Director Julie Parisi. “This program is designed to support them through that transition. We have a diverse mix of business owners who are just getting started.”
Additionally, the Farmers at the Market program in partnership with Feed Iowa First allows immigrant farmers to offer unique produce to the Cedar Rapids market, including African specialty heritage vegetables. This allows for both the availability of culturally appropriate foods (a nutritional diversity that has been desperately needed) and an opportunity for those not acquainted with those produce items to learn how to use them from the farmers who bring them to market.
The Cedar Rapids School District website is available in 20 languages. This is not surprising at all, given the population of children and families for whom English is not their first language. Hoover Elementary in particular has spent years developing resources to engage and support families, including both onsite programming and actively serving as a liaison to connect people with social service agencies and community organizations.
The Neighborhood Transportation Service program at Horizons adopted an inclusive app-based scheduling system in 2020 that allows users to access transportation in over 100 languages. Additionally, through a partnership with Catherine McAuley, when an influx of refugees came to the community from Afghanistan, the program was adapted to ensure that transportation services were also provided in a manner that was mindful of the unique cultural needs of that population.
As locals, there is an opportunity here. Iowa is billed as a great place to raise kids. We have dubbed our habit of saying good morning to strangers on the sidewalk ‘Iowa Nice.’ Is this heaven? The changing demographics are an opportunity to live up to what we believe to be true about ourselves - an opportunity to live up to our shared identity. The coming presidential election cycle may come with the same xenophobic rhetoric that plagued the last two. (Quite frankly, the kind of rhetoric that has spread like a social contagion across the globe and sullied the discourse about the way forward in nation after nation.) We have the opportunity to actively work against this seeping into our own daily interactions, into our own community outcomes, and into those we choose to place into positions of power. Be an example of the Iowa you would want to call home.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinion content represents the viewpoint of the author or The Gazette editorial board. You can join the conversation by submitting a letter to the editor or guest column or by suggesting a topic for an editorial to email@example.com