Richmond Home

Immigration and Refugee Resettlement

The Richmond region is the second largest home to Virginia newcomers, after Northern Virginia. Despite lacking international flights arriving at the Richmond International Airport, Richmond has a strong infrastructure for refugee resettlement and welcoming immigrants to a new home. In the words of Governor Ralph Northam, "Virginia’s lights are on and our doors are open, and we welcome new Virginians to make their homes here."

Dominique Cressler
Dominique Cressler

 

Dominique Cressler
Majors: Arabic Language and Literature & Global Studies

 

Maria Navarro Castillo
Maria Navarro Castillo

 

Maria Navarro Castillo
Majors: Mathematical Economics

 

Over the past three and a half years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve as a program assistant at the Sacred Heart Center. The Sacred Heart Center is a non-profit organization that serves as a hub for Richmond’s Latino community. As a Latina myself, born and raised in Nicaragua, I was particularly interested in understanding the immigrant experience lived by people with Latin American heritage who now reside in the United States. When I first visited the Center, which at the time had just opened its doors to the Bonner Scholars Program, I came across this big red brick building adorned with festive decorations and Catholic effigies. It reminded me of home. As I was starting my new life in this foreign country, I joined the Sacred Heart Center to have that little piece of home with me and deepen my knowledge about the Latino experience in the US. Little did I know that this experience would transform my own sense of community and identity.

In many ways, the Sacred Heart Center and I embarked on similar journeys of growth that guided us to build a stronger sense of belonging, direction, and self-awareness. About five months before I joined the team, Tanya Gonzalez became the Center’s executive director. She focused her efforts on constructing a vision and strategic plan that would restructure the organization and equip it with the resources to better serve the Latino community. This transformation brought along new faces whose inspirational work and commitment reinvigorated the Sacred Heart Center. As a long-term intern, I was fortunate enough to work alongside a group of mentors that enabled me to be part of this incredible effort. With their guidance, I dedicated my work to assist the growth of our family support initiatives, daily operations, and educational programs. As I became more involved in the Center’s efforts, I began to work more closely with our students and their families. Whether it was through a simple phone call or a visit to their neighborhood, I quickly gained an insight into the lives of immigrant families, and the challenges and injustices that came along with that experience. However, at the same time, I also became aware of the resilience and determination that guided their actions and represented the very essence of their community.

Teaching English class and supporting the Center’s first bilingual art program were two of the most memorable experiences that shaped my perspective on the character of Latino families in Richmond. For a semester, I teamed up with my host mom, Danica, to teach English class in the evenings. What I loved the most about teaching was being able to build great relationships with our students, who came to the Sacred Heart Center with the determination to become fluent English speakers and gain the confidence to apply for a job, speak to their children’s teacher and do many other things that we often take for granted. Most importantly, I admired their perseverance to build a better future for themselves and their unconditional love for their families.

The second experience that has brought so much joy and purpose to my civic engagement was my involvement in Casa Lapiz, our bilingual art program for students from Boushall Middle School. Casa Lapiz was founded by Alfonso Perez, a Colombian visual artist and a great friend of mine who was recently recognized as one of “the top 40 under 40” working to make Richmond a better place. I am proud to say I have worked with him for over a year to create a safe space for students from Central and South American communities who have just migrated to the US to explore their cultural identity through creative languages. We have generated creative conversations through painting, drawing, sculpture, and collage that transcend language barriers and propel our students to raise their voice, share who they are and find commonalities among each other. I have cherished the opportunity to work with these children, and it humbles and excites me to hear their compelling stories and witness how these initiatives contribute to the realization of their full potential. Casa Lapiz has taught me the importance of creating environments where youth can express themselves, celebrate their identity and be heard. At its core, a healthy community leverages culture as a platform for both self-expression and unity.

I am so grateful to say that my experience at the Sacred Heart Center has been filled with many life lessons and devoted mentors that have taken me under their wings to show me the power of building a community that thrives in the celebration of our shared humanity. I feel blessed to be part of the vibrant and resilient Latino community in Richmond, who has taught me to cherish my roots and pursue my calling as a force for good in the community. My journey through the Sacred Heart Center has empowered me to use my experience and education in order to build community everywhere I go through compassion, empathy and solidarity towards others. I want to thank the Sacred Heart Center family and the Bonner Scholars Program for challenging me to become an agent of change, to act against the many injustices that are still out there and live a meaningful and purposeful life that gives birth to the best that is within me. As I embark on a new chapter in my life amid the massive propagation of COVID-19, I cannot help but turn to the lessons learned from my experience as a Bonner at the Sacred Heart Center and seek in them the guidance to cope with this difficult situation by sharing messages of hope, by spreading warmth from afar and by acting with kindness and love towards others. In that sense, I will carry my “Sacred” heart wherever I go, with the commitment to cultivate with my actions spaces for our communities to engage in healing and mutual growth.

Como el cantautor uruguayo Jorge Drexler nos recordó en estos tiempos tan inciertos: “Desde lejos, ¡sé cercano! No se toca el corazón solamente con la mano”.

Thin Yee Mon Su
Thin Yee Mon Su

 

Thin Yee Mon Su
Major: Mathematical Economics

 

Civic engagement has affected me mainly in two ways:

(1) Understanding of identities and backgrounds different from my own
For a semester in UR, I joined other UR volunteers to be part of a reading club for Hispanic/Latino students from Richmond public schools. Every weekend that semester, we would group together with 3 to 5 students, read some chapters of a book and then engage in discussion to develop English critical reading skills. One of the students I mainly interacted with was an eleven-grader who was an active participant in the reading club. Despite his willingness to get involved, I sometimes noticed him being tired on weekend mornings and unable to focus well in the club activities. Seeing this, I just assumed he might just not be interested in the materials discussed in this reading club and apart from accomplishing the goals of this reading club, I did not really try hard to understand what was troubling him. However, one day, I had a chance to have a conversation with him, which was not about the reading club or academics but about his life, and it changed my views. It turned out after being forced to immigrate into the US, he had been staying in Richmond where he would attend school during the day and work as a part-timer at a supermarket after school till late at night. He told me after a long day, he set aside some time for school work and due to this hectic schedule, he had insomnia since he couldn’t sleep well and enough. But he also needed to earn money to support him and his family. Listening to this made me realize that I was wrong to only see him as a student who should study and not as an individual who might have many other hardship that was affecting his well-being. Slowly, we exchanged more conversations about own countries and culture, and that helped in strengthening our mentor-mentee relationship. This is one of the many life stories I came across during my civic engagement in Richmond and this allows me to understand the background of a person who is raised up and lives a completely different way than I am. And these life stories alert me about challenges that I would not face in my life and encourage me to truly understand people’s stories and what shape their actions.

(2) Analysis of complex social issues
One example of social issues I am interested in is poverty and child labor. Growing up in Myanmar, I see child labor as a pressing issue that results from poverty of families. In one summer service abroad, I interned at an organization in Myanmar which aims to increase the income of low-income farmers by introducing advanced farming techniques to increase the yields of their crops. Throughout my internship, I had opportunities to directly interact with these farmers and listened to their stories. In one occasion, a farmer was testing out a technique taught to him by our team and he started saying that he wished this technique would help him get more crop yields, so that he can earn more money to send his children back to school without making them work. His words hit me because he was not even talking about making his family rich but all he wanted was to earn enough to cover basic needs, which include his children’s education. This alerts me on how poverty trap is a huge social issue in Myanmar that forces a lot of children to work without getting a proper education, mainly in rural areas. This opportunity gave me a chance to analyze this issue from a hands-on perspective and further motivate me to continue taking an interest in this issue and think about how poverty can be alleviated.

Civic engagement has also prepared me with lifelong learning in the context of:

(1) Economic development
Civic engagement has sparked me more questions than when I first started engaging in the community. It most importantly sparked lifelong learning for me to get motivated to keep learning and engaging with issues that struck out to me. While doing one of my summer service abroad, I was able to work with government officials to improve public services and living standards in Myanmar. Before my engagement with them, I blamed the government for all the lack of public services in the country but as I engaged, I found out the troubles that they faced which includes not earning enough revenue because people were not paying taxes such as property tax. I was stunned with this reality and decided to intern for two consecutive summers there to improve this reality. I also plan to work in this same field after graduating to continue improving economic development in the country and in this case, fixing the tax system. If I hadn’t interned there, I would not know the reality of public services in the country but this civic engagement opened new interests for me. In addition, as an economics major, I saw a connection of my academics with civic engagement work at this organization. This motivates me to continue expanding my knowledge on economic development in the future.

(2) Understanding the work and struggle of non-profit organizations
Civic engagement also prepared me to face possible challenges behind the scene if I were to initiate a movement or start a non-profit organization. For example, working on the administrative side of things with CCC (my Bonner site), I realize the more practical and detailed challenges that anyone serving the community could face. In CCC, I worked with the Interpreter Services to provide interpreting services to non-English speakers. There are times when clients requested interpreters for certain languages but we were not able to assist because there were no interpreters available. In other organizations that I came across during my four years of college, some had good intentions but not enough funding to execute the ideas. These encounters encourage me to think and apply ways that could possibly solve these challenges. Overall, interacting with different organizations made me realize the challenges of lack of resources that could hinder in assisting our community partners, and these are the lifelong lessons I would keep in mind as I continue to engage in the community. 

Being an Interpreter Services intern at CCC has opened my eyes to various issues and stories that empower me. I sincerely thank my CCC supervisors and Bonner Program for adding more joy and values to my college life.