Dan Rearick is being honored as a Champion of Change for working tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants civically, linguistically, and socially into the fabric of their neighborhoods.
A few months back, I spent a morning volunteering at a local community farm. Uniting NC organized the event as part of a program for longtime residents and recent immigrants to work together serving their communities. As usual, new North Carolinians from all over the world joined us. We had volunteers from Cuba, Sudan, Burma, Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Iran.
As we finished our morning of picking greens for the local food bank, I talked to a family from Cuba—a father, mother and their son. Immediately, the father and mother told me, teary-eyed, how thankful they were to be here in a country of freedom and opportunity. I soon understood why they were so emotional when they explained this was their first week in the United States.
Even with all that this family had to do to settle into a new country, a new home and their son’s new school, they were spending the day giving back. “We came to make a better life for ourselves,” the mother told me. “But we are so thankful, and we also want to do what we can to make a better life for others.”
Generations of immigrants made our country what it is today. Most new immigrants come to our country with an American Dream that goes beyond just getting a better job. It includes joining a community who, like the family from Cuba, is open to meeting new neighbors and goes out of its way to help.
Sadly, we have a history of amnesia—with each new generation forgetting what their families went through. Even though we all know how hard it is to meet new neighbors, new classmates and new co-workers, we often shut out newcomers and make their arrival even more of an uphill struggle than it already is. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We have untapped potential in this country. When you’re in a place where people welcome you and show you the ropes, you’re energized and share your own ideas. In neighborhoods, sharing begets sharing. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in neighborhoods where everyone knows each other’s name, and neighbors share their tools and their favorite recipes.
This is what Uniting NC is trying to build. We know immigrants want to meet their new neighbors and give back to their communities, so we develop programs like the community volunteer days. Another program we started helps parents meet other parents and better understand their children’s schoolwork. School by school, town by town, these are the types of programs that help new American families reach their full potential and benefit our entire communities.
Fifty years from now, Americans will still live in a country that immigrants help make great. After all, immigrants are—by definition—willing to dream big and to leave everything behind to make a better life. We as a nation will have to ask ourselves if we helped our own country prosper by treating people right along the way. Did we help them help us make our country even better? Will the children of immigrants win even more Nobel Prizes than they did in the last half century? Will new Americans make even more music that wins Grammys and makes us dance? Will they continue an amazing track record of starting successful businesses and creating jobs? They will, if we welcome them.
Dan Rearick is the Executive Director of Uniting NC, a non-profit dedicated to building communities that actively welcome new immigrants, so that together we can build an even more innovative, prosperous and culturally-rich society.