By Stephanie Harp
From an initial 2019 meeting of community organizations about how to meet the needs of new immigrants, to its present track record of assisting 66 individuals within 19 families, Welcoming Immigrant Neighbors-Bangor has been learning as they go.
“We’ve been amateurs, scrambling to figure things out together,” said Co-President Dennis Chinoy at a recent Maine MultiCultural Center forum. “Be impressed, but don’t be deceived. We’re not a bunch of professional case managers.” Sarah Marx serves as co-president with Chinoy.
The broad mission of Welcoming Immigrant Neighbors (WIN) is to assist local immigrants in navigating U.S. life and culture. They strive to help new neighbors meet basic needs, access essential services, find social supports, and experience a warm welcome to the shared community. The intentionally broad statement doesn’t specify needs or support. WIN helps with translation, housing, furniture, transportation, clothing, food, access to school, healthcare, and legal advice, and English language tutoring.
“It really kind of addresses everything,” said Treasurer Sondra Siegal. “Because it’s so broad, we are jacks of all trades. We never know what kind of challenge we’re going to be faced with. It’s been a huge learning curve for us.”
During 2020’s COVID-19 crisis, WIN offered emergency funds to help people stay in their homes when they’d lost work but weren’t eligible for government support. They maintained a food pantry and a free “shop” for clothes and household goods. Recently, they arranged vaccine appointments.
WIN began as a grassroots, crisis response to one family’s need. Having been contacted by CHISPA (Centro Hispano de Maine), a local couple offered an extended stay in their home to a family that needed housing. Then WIN – which started as Welcoming the Stranger – helped several families connected to the first one, then those folks knew someone who needed dental work and was unsure how to get it. The organization grew from there.
That first family was from Guatemala. “People were impressed that we were able to tap into the Latino community, one of the most underserved populations because it tends to stay under the radar,” said Andrea Steward, secretary of the board.
A year later, just before COVID-19 closures, WIN was assisting six families, and recruiting and training new partners to help others. “We saw a lot of change as COVID hit,” Steward said. “Families moved away to be with other family members already in the U.S., or because everything shut down, they needed different opportunities to keep working.”
After starting with task-oriented teams divided into transportation, medical, and fundraising, WIN restructured to family support teams. With two or three people on each team, roles are more fluid, though they try to include someone who speaks the family’s language. Early organizers were all white and American-born. So WIN issued a plea for members with lived immigration experiences. The WIN Coordinating Committee, or WINCC, now includes members from Mexico, Peru, Spain, the Middle East.
Currently, 12 support teams are helping 13 families, one of which has moved away but is still in close contact, as WIN provides support for navigating resources in their new area.
Most of the individuals and families WIN has been helping are Spanish speakers from Central America and Mexico, with a few inquiries from people from Kenya, Lebanon, and Morocco. An outreach effort is publicizing WIN through phone calls, social media, and brochures in five languages, distributed to places an immigrant might request help, such as hospitals and the Department of Health and Human Services. WIN helps regardless of immigration status, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, background, or political affiliations.
“The help is for any person who presents themselves as a new immigrant to the Bangor area and they need help adjusting to life in America and finding the necessary, important stuff,” said Khawla Abu Sheikh Wise, a pharmacist who is Palestinian and the mother of six children.
Volunteer training instructs team members to listen for what someone needs. “We are more of a listener, and make sure that we welcome them, like introduce them to a free activity or invite them to a picnic, create a warm feeling,” said Wise. Listening helps team members know, for example, that someone might not realize they are eligible for free emergency healthcare, or a sliding fee for dental care. WIN arranges and provides transportation to appointments, including those for legal advice and about immigration status, often to South Portland. “Some of them might not know when their next appointment is, or maybe they moved and need to update their new address to make sure they don’t miss some important appointments,” she said.
“As an immigrant, when I moved here 17 years ago, I didn’t have anyone giving me a hand. That’s why I’m so happy to be part of this and do for them when no one did for me,” said Francisca Smith, who has been in the area for 10 years and teaches Spanish at Brewer High School. Smith is from Mexico. She recently administered a Spanish-language survey asking families how well WIN meets their needs. With a low of “1” and a high of “5” (excellent), 87.5% of respondents answered “5” and the remaining 12.5% answered “4.” The anonymous survey let people feel free to be honest. “I was so happy to be able to do this, and I was so happy that I got these responses because we are doing what our goal is, and we are going to keep doing this, and more.”
Now WIN is looking to shift from crisis management into longer term planning, as they’d started to do before COVID-19 returned them to crisis mode. “It’s a little disheartening to be in this place of constant crisis and, as a small organization, just trying to do the best we can to serve everybody,” said Andrea Steward. “But now it seems like we are cresting that hill again. It feels really beautiful that we can see ourselves evolving out of this crisis mode. We’re finally at a place that we can ask where we want the organization to be going, and what we can provide that people really need that are lacking right now in our services.”
One new effort is English language tutoring at workplaces. Long work hours mean schedules are difficult to coordinate; onsite access allows small groups to meet during lunch hours, five days a week for 30-minute sessions. For this, WIN is collaborating with Riverside Adult Education in Orono and Literacy Volunteers of Bangor. “It’s been really wonderful to think about doing this,” Steward said.
Everyone at WIN is eager to return to social activities that were put on hold during the pandemic, like birthday and holiday celebrations, game nights, and other in-person gatherings. WIN has helped children register for recreation programs. “Many kids in our families really don’t have the opportunity to participate because their parents work very long hours and are not able to get them to rec programs,” said Sondra Siegel, who recently took a child to a soccer game. At the field next to his, he saw other kids from WIN. “I saw so many of my friends today!” he said. WIN plans to offer limited funding to help children participate in day camps this year, and wants to organize hiking and swimming outings in July and August.
For information about WIN, see Facebook, or contact them by email at [email protected] and by phone 207-370-4089, which also works on WhatsApp.