Helping immigrants and refugees find a home in New York

I’m pleased that I’ll be in attendance at this year’s biennial conference of the International Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers in Berlin. Besides the thrill of visiting what has been described as one of the world’s most exciting cities, I’m excited about the conference itself. The conference is called “On the Move – At Home in the World” with a focus on the theme of displaced people and migration as a global phenomenon and challenge. It highlights community work in the area of refugees and migration … and really, what could be a more relevant discussion topic today for Europe, North America and the world?

As the former executive director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York (UNH), my presentation, in conjunction with the Brooklyn-based Arab-American Family Support Center, a UNH member, covers how the settlement houses and community centers in New York City are redefining what community means here in our city. Specifically, it discusses how the work of community-based agencies is essential to promoting the integration of immigrants and newcomers in new societies and the strategies they employ to do it.

I hope to be able to post again on this subject after the conference about what we learned from international colleagues, especially practical approaches and examples from their cities and countries. I’ll be particularly interested in what our visits to the variety of neighborhood centres in Berlin show us about best practices there.

The topic of the conference got me thinking about the experience of New York City settlement houses in helping immigrants, both past and present.

Many of the original and historic New York City settlement houses were founded in the late 19th century explicitly to help the millions of immigrants then “on the move” to New York. Like many of the refugees and immigrants today, these immigrants were seen to be “flooding” our city, with all the implications of that word, and were generally seen as undesirable: unskilled, unmannered, unhealthy, unwashed and having far too many children. However, they mainly were from Europe, which I suspect made a difference to a city like New York, which at that time was highly stratified and segregated by race, class and national origin. I do wonder whether our doors would have been as open as they were at that time had the immigrants been coming from Africa, Asia or the Near East, as is the case today.

These 19th century immigrants were fortunate to have, in New York City at least, wealthy philanthropists and benefactors who saw the value in helping them “assimilate.” Wealthy New Yorkers believed at that time that there was great value in “Americanizing” these immigrants, whether out of self-interest or altruism, or both. These strangers were to be taught English, offered citizenship classes and education in the arts, and of course job skills. The early settlement houses, supported at that time exclusively by private philanthropy, were funded to provide these services in what we now call underserved communities … and they largely succeeded. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants learned to become

Americans through the social clubs and “improvement programs” run by the early settlement houses.
One of the favorite stories I liked to tell during my time in the 1990s as executive director of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan, founded in 1894, was that the room in which we had set up our computer lab to help participants learn the skills they needed to find jobs in the marketplace at that time was the very same room that contained rows of sewing machines in the 1910s in order to help community residents learn the skills they needed to earn a living in their time.

I loved the story because it showed the continuity and adaptability of the settlement houses. These organizations never remained stagnant; if they had they would have disappeared. But the continuity piece is critical too. The settlement houses of New York City today still teach English. They still train newcomers in the employment skills they will need to compete in 2016; however, most of this work is now supported through government contracts and the deliverables are always specified.

Today we talk about integration and inclusion of newcomers, not assimilation. This is not simply an attempt to be politically correct or to parse words. The language choice has great meaning, as it implies respect for the culture and identity the immigrants have brought, and suggests that they can be “real Americans” while still retaining the cultural markers, religions and connections of their homelands. The settlement houses today continue to play a critical role in embracing newcomers and helping them understand how to not only survive but to thrive in a multi-ethnic stewpot like New York.

It is clear that in 2016, great cities in Europe and Asia – Paris, Brussels, London, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Amsterdam – are struggling with how to integrate refugees and immigrants successfully, especially in the face of discrimination and resistance and terrorist attacks. This is not a new struggle.

I believe the track record and experience of New York City communities is instructive and could even be sobering to our colleagues abroad. I look forward to sharing what we learn from them and what they find interesting or exciting about our approaches here. Stay tuned!

Nancy Wackstein is the director of community engagement and partnerships at the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.

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