Nonprofits founded to help one immigrant group reach out to others
In a Chinatown classroom, immigrants huddled in groups one recent morning to select three core American values for a class discussion. As they sat clustered beside a window overlooking Tyler Street, Pei Xia Kuang, Eugenio Rojas, Doaa El Rashidy, and Elaine Sousa quickly selected two topics, but struggled to agree on a third.
Instructor Richard Goldberg cautioned the students — natives of China, Venezuela, Egypt, and Brazil, respectively — to consider whether a concept under consideration was familiar to each.
“Make sure everybody’s comfortable with [the choice], because you’re going to have to explain that not only to yourselves but to the other groups,” Goldberg said.
When Goldberg began teaching at the Asian American Civic Association in 1993, most of his students were, like Kuang, immigrants from China. Today, they come from all over the world.
This class — which also includes students from Syria, Morocco, and Thailand — is increasingly typical at the Civic Association and at other local organizations created to serve one immigrant group: Over time, the nonprofit institutions are branching out to assist diverse populations as they offer free or low-cost assistance in learning English, preparing for college or the workforce, and becoming US citizens.
“Little by little, we’d have one Spanish speaker, one Albanian,” said Goldberg, who added that the diversity forces students to focus on communication skills. “Only in the past six to seven years has it really become more diverse.
“English really becomes the common language,” he said by phone from his office at the association, founded in 1967 as the Chinese American Civic Association. “It’s really very different with a homogeneous group, where someone can turn to the person next to them and speak their native language.”
Ronnie Millar, executive director of the Irish International Immigrant Center in downtown Boston, said the 25-year-old organization has provided legal, educational, and wellness services to people from 120 countries.
“It’s a rich range of people,” Millar said. “In our citizenship class, we have 14 or 15 different countries represented.”
The center’s six lawyers consult with about 1,200 families each year and represent about 500 annually in their efforts to obtain green cards, become citizens, or reunite with family members, he said.
Millar, 50, came to the United States from Belfast, Northern Ireland, 19 years ago. He said part of being Irish is welcoming those who are not Irish.
“As an organization, we’re deeply connected to our Irish heritage . . . in terms of hospitality and welcome,” Millar said. “There’s a goodness about Irish people and an openness and inclusiveness. In Ireland, we open the door to our neighbor.”
Such open-door policies help ensure that these organizations’ services will remain in high demand even as immigration trends change over time.
For Jewish Vocational Services, founded in 1938 to help European Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism and the looming world war, inclusiveness extends to welcoming Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, peacefully bringing together two communities often at odds over land and beliefs.
“They’re seeking the American dream,” said Jerry Rubin, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Vocational Services. “The organization is their open door to that opportunity just the way we were to the Jewish immigrants in 1938. I think that’s something very powerful for the Jewish community and for the broader community. It transcends some of the more challenging relationships.”
Immigrants from varied cultures find these organizations and others like them largely by word of mouth and referrals from other agencies. Rubin and Goldberg said some clients are members of groups whose migration is a recent phenomenon or who are coming in smaller numbers, so that organizations tailored to their needs are small or nonexistent.
Haider Alhemayri grew up in Baghdad and emigrated in 2011, joining two older brothers and a sister who fled Iraq after a brother received a death threat for working as a translator for the American military.
In Boston, Alhemayri, 27, quickly secured a job with help from Jewish Vocational Services, where he felt so welcomed that he asked friends in Iraq why there were no Jewish people back home.
“I told them, like: ‘They are so great. They helped me out,’ ” said Alhemayri, a Muslim. “The picture they make in Iraq is [Jewish people] are terrible. That’s not true.”
Alhemayri heard from a Jewish Vocational Services classmate about the Asian American group, where he later went to improve his English and prepare to build upon his degree in biology from the University of Baghdad.
Asian American Civic Association staff helped Alhemayri apply to Boston University’s BioScience Academy, which gives college credit and training in biotechnology laboratory skills to students who have completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. He studied there during the 2012-2013 academic year, then worked as a lab technician until funding for his position ran out.
Alhemayri has since struggled to find work in his field and has gone back to his old job, in a downtown sandwich shop, while preparing to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and return to cancer research, his focus at the BioScience Academy.
Despite the recent setback, Alhemayri feels fortunate to have begun a new life in the United States.
“Here, there is a kind of hope, but over there, there is none,” he said. “Even when I’m working here as a cashier, the way that people treat me, there is a big difference. . . . I feel like I’m a human here.”