The Cincinnati region has come a long way in its ways of welcoming since I came to the US in 1980 to attend Wilmington College, studying accounting and computers. At the time, there were not many international students and even fewer international faculty and staff despite an internationally focused curriculum and programming. While we international students felt isolated, the faculty, staff and community of Wilmington College welcomed us and helped ease our transition into new challenges like winter weather, increased expenses, cultural differences, and accessing academic opportunities. It was this welcoming experience that would guide me later in life.
After moving to Cincinnati, we had mixed experiences of good and bad both welcoming and unwelcoming. Cincinnati did not have the welcoming mechanisms and structure in place that Wilmington College did. So we took the initiative on our own to help families relocate to Cincinnati and encouraged over 20 families to move here. The cost of living, sense of family, and job opportunities attracted people, however, it was the unique international community we created on our own that kept people here. We offered one another support and help through our own experiences and challenges.
We suffered quietly as individuals and as a community. We didn’t feel represented at our jobs, in city leadership or in cultural events, sometimes being the only black people at work or certainly, the only Africans at work. We were the pioneers. People looked at us differently because of our appearances and accents. They valued our work ethics, but we still felt as outsiders. We then started doing cultural events to introduce people to our Cameroonian culture and learn about other cultures, to begin a conversation with the broader community.
People need to feel a sense of belonging, to feel like they can call a place home and there is a place for them. They should feel safe, valued, and a sense of belonging and dignity. They need to see themselves represented in their everyday encounters - from cultural events to office staff, to the warehouse floor, to their neighborhoods and places for social gathering.
As a community, we need to recognize and support people’s talents and passions to help them reach their goals reducing barriers along the way. There is talent here we need to identify, nourish, and encourage it to grow. When we do that, everyone in our communities’ benefit, but if we fail to welcome immigrants and refugees, people will choose to go elsewhere.
I think we need to focus in three key areas: cultural events and entertainment, diverse representation in decision-making positions and professional and career development opportunities.
First, there is a desire from community members to see more cultural events and entertainment representing the interests of immigrant and refugee communities, as well as young professional seeking a global, multicultural experience to build a broader sense of community. So much effort goes into attracting new talent to the region for job opportunities, but when people continuously face barriers, feel an increased sense of isolation, and do not see places for them to socialize, have fun, and meet new people, they will want to relocate.
Second, we need more diverse representation in decision-making roles like boards, advisory councils, and leadership positions so the voices of immigrants and refugees, particularly people of color, can be heard and advocated for.
Finally, we need to create pathways for immigrants and refugees to move beyond survival jobs by reducing credentialing barriers and helping people get into their trained professions. There are many with underutilized skills, degrees, and career experiences. For example, many have nursing, engineering, law, medical, and teaching degrees but are not working in their trained professions. Cincinnati does a good job of supporting refugees, but we need to listen to them, learn about their experiences, skills, and degrees and help create more career pathways.
As an international community, we can look to other organizations to improve resources and support for us, but we must also demand more of ourselves and work with each other to help reach our goals. We must be constantly self-critical and self-reflective to grow to better help ourselves, help each other and the broader community of the Cincinnati region. Welcoming goes in both directions and we can all grow through learning through and leveraging our differences so that we may all rise.