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Lauren Casteel and panelists on stage

Chat4Change: It’s All About Community

// February 19, 2020

WFCO Debuts Community Conversation Platform with Focus on Immigrant and Refugee women

On Feb. 5, 2020, WFCO held our inaugural Chat4Change, a new series designed to harness the power of conversation to inform, illuminate, and connect community. More than 60 people from across the Front Range gathered at the Posner Center to “chat” about change that will advance the economic status of refugee and immigrant women in Colorado.

Refugee and immigrant women are key to Colorado’s economy

According to panelist Kit Taintor, senior advisor to the Governor for New American Integration, immigrant residents make up nearly 10 percent of the Colorado population. Kit leads the strategy for the recently launched New Americans Initiative to ensure Colorado’s new American populations have the opportunity to thrive in their communities. She shared that they are employees and employers, with 102,298 non-immigrant residents employed by immigrant-owned firms that generate $16.7 billion in sales. Most are working age, who collectively pay more than $5 billion in taxes and represent $14.2 billion in spending power.

“Immigrants are driving our economy forward and increasing the diversity of our workforce,” Kit said. “But it’s important to note that these are data points. Every point represents a person—each with a unique story to tell and each adding to the rich fabric of our Colorado communities.”

While every experience is unique, most immigrants desire a sense of community

Three other panelists provided insight into the immigrant experience, sharing their stories, challenges, and desires as newcomers. Several key themes emerged, including wanting a sense of belonging, community, and feeling welcomed.

Panelist Susana Guardado, originally from Mexico, is channeling her immigrant experience to assist Fort Morgan’s immigrants. As executive director of OneMorgan County, a non-profit dedicated to immigrant inclusion through the establishment of positive intercultural relationships, and a WAGES grantee, she is helping break down barriers, investing in opportunity and potential, and creating a sense of community in Fort Morgan.

“My father moved our family to Fort Morgan when I was young, but Mexico was home,” said Susana. “I went back for school and returned to Fort Morgan, starting work with OneMorgan County. At first it was difficult to bridge both worlds. When a mentor asked me, ‘what would you have wanted for your family?’ I understood my role. Now, three years later, I know I’m right where I belong.”

“Every point represents a person—each with a unique story to tell and each adding to the rich fabric of our Colorado communities.”

Panelist Ndeye Ndao’s path to Colorado was a little different, but seconded Susana’s longing to be part of a larger community. After completing high school in Senegal, she joined her brother in Michigan as an international student. She worked two jobs to put herself through school, receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2018 she moved to Colorado and is an asylee outreach coordinator for the International Rescue Committee and a certified doula.

“Like Susana, feeling a sense of belonging wasn’t easy,” Ndeye explained. “Through a chance meeting at the DMV, I was introduced to the Senegalese community in Denver. It was comfortable and safe because it was what I knew. And being with people who shared the same traditions and culture gave me the courage and support I needed to reach out to people who were different than me.”

A sense of belonging opens up opportunity

Arriving from Iraq in 2016, panelist and speaker for the Colorado Refugee Speakers Bureau, Zahraa Otaifah also felt a sense of isolation, especially as a single mom to a child with autism. While a resettlement agency helped her get started, she had to navigate services for her child while finding a job. Although she held a degree from an Iraqi university, she had to start over.

“My first job was working behind a counter,” Zahraa said. “It was my first step and helped me with language skills,” she explained. “Adjusting to a new culture was also confusing. I didn’t want to erase my past. I felt a huge sense of relief when I realized I could incorporate the best of both worlds, while building a new future for me and my child.”

The panel agreed that once basic needs are met, feeling welcomed and appreciated for who they are as individuals and the diverse experiences they bring is paramount.

“Regardless of the economic, social or other barriers we face, a sense of belonging and community is something most people desire,” said Zahraa. “And once people are welcomed and accepted, the barriers can be replaced with opportunity.”

Supporting immigrant and refugee women in Colorado

The panelists compiled a PDF listing ways to support immigrant and refugee women in Colorado, including purchasing from local immigrant-owned businesses and volunteering.

Watch Part I of Chat4Change:The Economic Status of Refugee & Immigrant Women in Colorado below, and finish with Part II here.

Category: Community

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