They came from Jamaica, Namibia, Brazil, England, Peru, Ecuador, Germany, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Thailand, India, The Philippines and Korea; and they are all proud and accomplished Rhode Islanders. Once they were struggling immigrants and refugees facing the multiple challenges of adjusting to a new language, a new climate, a new culture.
On Dec. 5, these 13 men and women were honored at a reception at the Smith Center for the Arts at Providence College. They were honored for their achievements, for what they have given back through their hard work and their vibrant families to the country and the state that has given so much to them. As one of the honorees put it, “This is a country where everything is possible!”
The program at PC, “My Story, Our Community,” was the culmination of an oral history project that grew out of the combined efforts of Welcoming Rhode Island, one of the 20 affiliates of Welcoming America, and PC’s Global Studies program. On Dec. 5, Providence College students in groups of two or three – primarily freshmen and sophomores – stood with the honorees whom they had visited and interviewed and told their stories, after which many of the honorees themselves offered brief but poignant comments. What was striking to all in attendance was how far these immigrants have traveled from their humble beginnings to become such successful citizens in the worlds of business, health care, community service and the arts.
The stories told at the Providence College reception are among the many inspiring stories lived every day by the more than 140,000 Rhode Islanders who are foreign-born. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, our state’s immigrant population in that year totaled 13.3 percent of our population; a little more than half were naturalized American citizens, while the remainder were in various phases of the immigration process.
Not surprisingly, in 2012, roughly 4 in 10 foreign-born Rhode Islanders came from the Caribbean, Central America or South America. Southern Europe, Western Africa and Southeastern Asia are also major contributors to our state’s salad bowl of ethnic identities. As one would suspect, the most widely spoken language brought to our state by our immigrants is Spanish or Spanish Creole. In addition, in descending order of prevalence, Portuguese or Portuguese Creole, Italian, French (including Patois and Cajun), Chinese, French Creole, Arabic, Laotian, African languages and Mon-Khmer/Cambodian are all spoken in a sizable number of Rhode Island homes.
Our local Jewish community should be particularly sensitive to the challenges and opportunities facing Rhode Island’s immigrants; it is certainly not easy being strangers in a strange land where the native language seems incomprehensible. Some readers of The Jewish Voice are immigrants. Many, if not most, of us have parents or grandparents or great-grandparents who were among the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who passed through Ellis Island – their difficult but courageous lives made immortal by the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
I hold vivid memories of numerous childhood visits to my Grandma Ida, who lived in a crowded, overheated apartment on East 184th Street in the Bronx. Grandma Ida was from the “Old Country;” her barley and vegetable soup smelled of Lithuania. She lived in that apartment for many years along with my Aunt Ann, Uncle Frank and bachelor Uncle Sam, all of whom spoke fluent English; but to her dying day, Grandma Ida’s language was Yiddish. Issues of the Forverts, the once ubiquitous New York Yiddish newspaper, added to the general clutter.
Over the long arc of history, we Jews, always on the move, have again and again found ourselves strangers in a strange land – from Judea to Babylonia, from Spain to Holland, from Central Europe to the Russian Pale of Settlement. Back in ancient Biblical days, our Torah commanded us, as it continues to command us: “You shall love (the stranger) as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
Today, in the aftermath of President Obama’s Nov. 20 speech on immigration, Rhode Island’s organizations serving immigrant populations are facing unprecedented pressures as more and more of the undocumented are coming out of the shadows in a courageous effort to normalize their lives.
One of our state’s most effective organizations working with the foreign-born is Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island (DIIRI); on Dec. 31, 2012, Dorcas Place (founded in 1981) and the International Institute of Rhode Island (founded in 1921) merged so that they could most effectively ensure the success of their closely allied missions to help our state’s most vulnerable individuals. At the moment, DIIRI is serving more than 10,000 low-income clients every year. Welcoming Rhode Island, an arm of DIIRI and one of the sponsors of the Dec. 5 event at PC, continues to provide a wide range of services in resettling our state’s newest immigrants and refugees from around the world.
The most important question for those of us who want to help these residents from other countries is: How can we help? Like all nonprofits, Dorcas International Institute needs monetary contributions. In addition, it welcomes donations of household goods, workplace attire and/or donations of volunteer time. Tax deductible contributions can be sent to Jessica Barry, director of development, Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, 645 Elmwood Ave., Providence, R.I. 02907; or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 401-784-8619. You can obtain detailed information as to how to become more involved by clicking HOW YOU CAN HELP on the home page of their website, www.diiri.org.
Remember we were strangers! We are therefore commanded to love the stranger. Please join me in supporting our state’s immigrants and refugees by contributing to such worthy organizations as Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island.
JAMES B, ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.