Community

With Welcome Week, communities put out welcome mat to immigrants

Cedar Rapids new to initiative embracing immigrants

Andrew Agyemang (right) talks Wednesday as his daughter, Gabriella Agyemang, 16, works at a computer at their house in Cedar Rapids. Originally from Ghana and now a project engineer for Alliant Energy, he said he’s found that Cedar Rapids “is a good place to raise kids.” (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Andrew Agyemang (right) talks Wednesday as his daughter, Gabriella Agyemang, 16, works at a computer at their house in Cedar Rapids. Originally from Ghana and now a project engineer for Alliant Energy, he said he’s found that Cedar Rapids “is a good place to raise kids.” (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — At her Cedar Rapids home, Doris Agyemang cooks fragrant jollof rice, a West African culinary specialty laden with spices and flavored with meat and tomatoes.

Agyemang and her husband, Andrew, originally are from Ghana but have long made the United States home. He moved to Texas when he was 12, she when she was 21. They met in college and now are raising their three children in Cedar Rapids.

Andrew Agyemang hopes that someday those children will cook jollof rice for their own kids. But he knows passing on cultural traditions isn’t easy. As a high school student in Amarillo, Texas, he remembers trying to just blend in with his American-born classmates.

“I worked hard to hide the culture,” he said.

That experience, and wanting to counter it for their own children, is one reason the Agyemangs are helping organize the Cedar Rapids Intercultural Festival, which will be held Saturday at Kirkwood Community College. Hosted by local nonprofit Wake Up for Your Rights, this is the festival’s second year. This year it is part of Welcoming Week, a broader effort by the city of Cedar Rapids and community partners.

Welcoming Week is an initiative started by national nonprofit Welcoming America, which encourages communities across the country to become more inclusive of immigrants. Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Johnson County are members of the Welcoming America network of communities; Cedar Rapids joined just this year.

Cedar Rapids City Council member Susie Weinacht said she had been looking for a way to highlight Cedar Rapids as an inclusive community since attending a meeting in Dubuque with the National Civic League in 2014. There, she heard business leaders from IBM talking about the importance of an inclusive community to them for things like growth, retention and company culture.

“I just thought, ‘This is who we are, this is who we want to be,’” Weinacht said. “Being a welcoming community is a win for everybody.”

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She and council member Ashley Vanorny worked with Cedar Rapids economic development manager Jasmine Almoayed to join Welcoming America in February.

“Each community can kind of take it and make it fit for their community’s needs,” Almoayed said. “We’ve talked about things like engaging the workforce here with immigrants. There’s some work to be done around economic strategies.”

In a time when politicians are calling for both crackdowns on undocumented immigration and decreases of legal immigration, Almoayed and Weinacht said making Cedar Rapids a “Welcoming City” isn’t about politics.

“It has nothing to do with any of that and all to do with our community being inclusive. We welcome folks. This is no counter protest,” Weinacht said.

What it is, she and Almoayed said, is a way to celebrate Cedar Rapids’ history, from the Bohemian immigrants of a century ago to those who founded the Mother Mosque to new arrivals from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, while at the same time helping the community as a whole thrive.

“I talk to employers on a regular basis, and a number one challenge they have is finding qualified workers, or finding workers in general,” Almoayed said. “Every community across the country is in a pretty fierce war for talent. We’re all trying to get people to move here, to stay here. One of the most underutilized and untapped populations we have are immigrants.”

Iowa City Area Development Group director of operations Erin Pottembaum said banners that say “Welcome” in multiple languages have been put up throughout downtown each September for the last three years as part of Welcoming Week. Community groups also are organizing events. On a more permanent basis, ICAD hosts a website, welcomeicarea.org, with resources to welcome new residents to town, wherever they may be from.

“I think that it’s important just so all our community members who come from other places feel they are welcome here,” Pottembaum said. “And to recognize we are a very diverse culture, and that grows our economy. ... We’re just making sure we do our part to build the best community that we can.”

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Any community group can submit an activity for inclusion in the Welcoming Week lineups. In Cedar Rapids, events can be added at gocedarrapids.com/welcoming-week, and Iowa City events are being collected at thinkiowacity.com. The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Diversity Forum on Sept. 20 and 21 in one of the Cedar Rapids events.

The Intercultural Festival will feature a panel discussion, a workshop with the police department on “dos and don’ts” for interacting with police in the United States and cultural activities. Those include an international fashion show, Bhutanese and Indian dance, music, salsa dancing and zumba, children’s activities and a demonstration by the Sparkle Bots robotics team. The event also will feature a soccer tournament and demonstrations by the Corridor Cricket League.

“For us, it’s just to thank the community. It’s a community we enjoy. It’s a good place to raise kids. We want to say thank you to the city,” Andrew Agyemang said.

“And also to raise awareness,” Doris Agyemang added. “It’s good to know we are here, and we exist, and we are coexisting. Sometimes people see people of color and immigrants and say, ‘It’s not good for them to be here.’ We want to open people’s eyes and show we are enriching the culture. We are here, we are part of the community.”

Andrew Agyemang works as a project engineer for Alliant Energy, and Doris Agyemang is a fitness instructor. Their children are 16, 14, and 11.

They try to go back to Ghana to visit every couple of years, but taking the whole family is expensive and difficult. Finding other ways to pass on culture and traditions from the West African county isn’t easy.

“Part of the reason we are so keen on this intercultural thing is it gets our children involved, and they find out they’re not alone,” Doris said. “If they see different people who are proud of their lineage, maybe they will be, too.”

More than food or other cultural touchstones, however, they said what’s important to them is passing on a mind-set.

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“If there was an award for being one of the friendliest people, Ghana would get it,” Andrew said.

Doris chimed in: “Ghanaians will go above and beyond to help someone.”

That makes participating in an initiative called Welcoming Week all the more fitting.

If you go

Cedar Rapids:

• Welcome Week Center, Thursday to Sept. 30, Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE. The Welcome Center will offer information on immigration legal services, ESL classes, job search assistance, how to get legal citizenship and more.

• Intercultural Festival, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 15), Kirkwood Community College, Horticulture Building, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd. SW. Soccer and cricket run throughout the day; speakers, panel discussion, fashion show, dance, music and other activities noon to 4:30 p.m.

• Legacies: Immigrants and Refugees, 6 to 7 p.m. Sept. 20, Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE. Listen to the experiences of local immigrants and refugee populations and those that assist them.

• Iowa Ideas: Diversity Forum, Sept. 20 to 21, DoubleTree by Hilton, 350 First Ave. NE. The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas is a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa. The Diversity Forum track includes discussions on education, workforce, the role of immigrants and refugees in Iowa, and more. Details: thegazette.com/iowaideas.

More events and information at welcomingCR.com.

Iowa City:

• Welcome Week picnic, 4 to 6 p.m. today (Sept. 9), City Park, 200 Park Road. An opportunity for new international students to meet potential host families. Open to the public; anyone interested in being a host strongly encouraged to attend. Hosted by Friends of International Students.

• Community conversation, 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sept. 18, MERGE, 136 S. Dubuque St. Friendship Community Project and the University of Iowa Conversation Center are partnering to offer free, one-on-one conversation practice between community members learning English and UI students trained to converse with English language learners of all levels.

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• “We the Interwoven” book reading, 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 18, MERGE, 136 S. Dubuque St. A reading of stories written by immigrants and first generation Iowans in the recently published collection, “We the Interwoven: An Anthology of Bicultural Iowa,” as well as a reception and exhibition of artwork from visual artist Maegan Tyrell’s “Photovoice Project.”

More information at welcomeicarea.org.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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