Local elected officials and Project FINE staff celebrated naturalized citizens during Citizenship Day in 2017.
by CHRIS ROGERS
It is hard to overstate how big of a deal earning their citizenship is to naturalized citizens. When Winonan Juan Carlos was recognized for that achievement in 2017, his late parents were on his mind. Like him, his parents had fled Cuba for the U.S. They did not live to see Carlos naturalized, but they themselves became citizens before passing away. “Both of them died in my arms, but they died with the freedom this country gave them,” he said.
“It is really, sincerely the culmination of all your hopes and dreams,” Project FINE Executive Director Fatima Said said of earning citizenship. “You feel pride, joy. You feel you belong. It’s powerful to say, ‘I’m an American. This is my country. This is my state, my home.’” She added, “It feels important that my vote is counted, that I have a say in my community, that I matter.”
U.S. communities are made of Native Americans and people whose families, at one point or another, came from somewhere else. This week and next week, Project FINE, the cities of Winona and St. Charles, and a host of other organizations are celebrating that multicultural heritage and the contributions immigrants and refugees make to local communities with the third annual Welcoming Week. Honoring new citizens is just one part of the festivities. In Winona and St. Charles there will be music, dance, food, film, and conversation.
“We are a multicultural society and have multicultural communities,” Said stated, explaining the purpose of Welcoming Week. There are refugees and immigrants moving because of our great job opportunities. “So people living here, we want them to feel like they really belong, like Winona supports and welcomes them.” She continued, “We want them to know that we recognize their contributions to our agriculture and manufacturing and many other businesses … We recognize that in addition to their benefits to our economy we are richer for their culture and tradition.” Said added, “We want them to feel safe. We want them to understand their community, and we want them to stay.”
On Sunday, the city of Winona and Project FINE will host Rhythm @ the River, a free, all-ages event with Hmong dance performances; an African drum circle; live music from Golpe Tierra, an Afro-Peruvian band from Madison, Wis., and the La Crosse Jazz Orchestra; salsa and swing dancing lessons and dances; children’s activities; and food. The event is in Winona’s Levee Park from 4-9 p.m. on Sunday, September 15.
Today, St. Charles will host a similar, free event — Welcoming on Wednesday — with live music, Laotian dance performances, a craft fair, food vendors, and bouncy houses and games for children. The event is from 5-8 p.m. at City Hall Park in St. Charles on Wednesday, September 11.
“I’m really proud of the work Project FINE does,” St. Charles City Council member and Project FINE board member Dave Kramer said. “There’s a large immigrant community in St. Charles and it’s very, very important in terms of all our activities, our employment, our churches, and our schools,” Kramer stated. The council member added of a welcoming proclamation the City Council issued, “For this to come from city leaders, it kind of sets the tone, I think, for what’s the culture, what’s acceptable in our community, and what is the right way to treat people.”
Next Wednesday, Project FINE will celebrate Citizenship Day, honor new citizens, and host a lunchtime meal at noon at Central Lutheran Church in Winona. “The native-born [citizens], we kind of take it for granted,” Kramer said of watching naturalized citizens being recognized for earning their citizenship. “But you see how much it means for them — it’s really special.”
The meal is part of an ongoing series of monthly community meals Project FINE has organized known as the Welcoming Table. A survey of the local immigrant and refugee community conducted by Project FINE found that isolation, trouble connecting with the local community, and racism were among the top challenges faced by immigrants and refugees. “After we learned that isolation and racism are some of the biggest challenges immigrants see, our staff and board of directors really felt like we needed to do something about it,” Said explained. “We also have an amazing Winona community that wants to be more involved with refugees and immigrants but doesn’t know how. So we created the Welcoming Table to provide meaningful interaction.” It is just a communal meal that gives people from different backgrounds a chance to meet each other and connect over food. However, Said stated, “I think this is one of those programs that is really making a difference, not just for refugees and immigrants but the entire community.”
Next Thursday, Project FINE and Frozen River Film Festival will screen four short documentaries about U.S. immigrants and refugees produced by immigrant and refugee filmmakers. “That’s going to be really cool,” Said said. “All of those are refugees’ stories from their own experience and perspective,” she added. The screening begins at 6:30 p.m. on September 19 at the Winona County History Center.
The Winona Family YMCA is celebrating Welcoming Week, as well, with a cultural potluck this Friday at noon; an open house all day next Friday, September 20, when anyone can use the Y for free; and other events.
For more information on Welcoming Week, including a full schedule of events, visit www.projectfine.org or Project FINE’s Facebook page.
There are Welcoming Table meals every month. For more information, visit www.projectfine.org/welcoming-table.html or the organization’s Facebook page.
Submitted photos from Project FINE