Project Update: Under One Roof: Chicago Immigrant and Refugee Resource Fair

From the U.S. Alumni TIES “Education for All: Inclusion and Access as Pathways to Peace,” Teachers for Global Classrooms alumnus Chris Smith is carrying forward ideas for building inclusive communities in Chicago. His project, “Under One Roof,” is founded on student and community collaboration to strengthen access to resources for Chicago’s new immigrant and refugee communities.

See more about the origins of Chris’s project and other small grant award recipients here.

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The tide has turned.

The snowball is rolling downhill.

After months of meetings, phone calls, planning, emailing, and outreach, the unsolicited messages started to come in.

From the once refugee and immigrant from Bosnia, an email with the subject line “How Can I Speak At Your Conference?”

To the Faceboook message, “Hi, I heard about your upcoming fair and am excited to share the information with some refugees that I work with. Do you have flyers that I can pick up?”

And a teacher in my building, “I was out last night and someone was telling me about this Immigrant and Refugee fair and I said, ‘Yes! That is at my school!’”

Ultimately, this U.S. Alumni TIES grant will be used to fund a refugee and immigrant community resource event, and the process has been much more meaningful that I ever would have anticipated.

On October 28th, the team will host the inaugural Under One Roof: Chicago Immigrant and Refugee Resource Fair at Mather High School in Chicago. At the event we will welcome local organizations who work to support our neighbors, parents, students and community members who are immigrants and refugees. Organizations will host information tables and many will present workshops and seminars.

The planning and organization of the event has had a profound effect on many in our school community.

I have formed a student organizing committee, a group of ten energetic, dedicated students who have been meeting every Monday for two months to plan the event. In the group, there are two girls who have recently arrived from Burma, two from Africa, a Muslim girl, two first generation Mexican Americans, and a Vietnamese American. To them, this project holds a special and personal meaning.

We spend our meetings talking about outreach, ideas for the day of the event, and the importance of having this event in our community. We talk about the idea of social justice, service learning, and volunteerism. We talk about doing this type of work; its meaning to ourselves, and what it means to work to help others.

We talk about community activism. The students have researched and reached out to local social service and support organizations that they think would be interested in hosting information tables or serving as speakers. They have contacted local politicians and community leaders to ask for their help to spread the word. They are inspired when they feel that the community is hearing their message. In the last week, they are starting to see the ripple effects of their work as they see and hear signs of progress on social media.

We also have 15 students who are being trained by a student development group to facilitate community circles. Every Wednesday, after school, we meet for our training. These students are learning strategies to manage group discussions with large groups of people on important, sometimes divisive topics. They learn how to manage a discussion by listening to everyone and letting everyone have the opportunity to voice their opinions. They demonstrate empathy and leadership in how to navigate sensitive and potentially controversial subjects.

The transformation of some of the students is nothing short of amazing. One girl, a recent immigrant herself, said to the group the other day, “I never talk in class. I never even raise my hand.” The facilitators were genuinely stunned as this girl showed no evidence of being a quiet student. At the resource fair, the students will lead four different community circles. In the circles, there may be strangers, adults, teachers, and other members from the community. The circle participants may not all speak English well and they certainly will have had myriad experiences.

I have thought many times during our organizing committee meetings and our circle training that if nothing else was accomplished with this project, the funds from the U.S. State Department would have been well spent.

But the best is yet to come. In just over one week we will have over 20 groups come for the Under One Roof: Chicago Immigrant and Refugee Resource Fair. We will have a Know Your Rights workshop hosted by the National Immigrant Justice Center. An Illinois organization, Equip for Equality, will host a workshop on rights for the disabled. Asian Human Services will present a panel entitled “The Stigma of Mental Illness” where they will also talk about free mental health resources for the community. The Lawyers Committee for Better Housing will hold a workshop on renters’ rights. We will host a panel on how to detect and prevent Medicare fraud. Northeastern Illinois University will present a workshop for opportunities for undocumented high school students looking to go to college. The Ethiopian Community Association will present a panel for allies and caregivers entitled “Refugee Resettlement 101.”

We will also have over 20 information tables with representatives from the Chicago Public Library, American Civil Liberties Union, Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago Teachers Union Latino Caucus, Organized Communities Against Deportation, the Syrian Community Network, and more.

Our school community has also embraced this event as a point of purpose and unity. The school administration and faculty are wholly behind the project. Many adults in the building are volunteering their time and energy to help support the event. The Under One Roof: Chicago Immigrant and Refugee Resource Fair is truly a community event and I cannot wait to report on the details of the day itself.

Written and contributed by Chris Smith.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.