by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A string of American flags waved in a slight breeze above community members who have become U.S. citizens. With the Lake Park Bandshell and Lake Winona in the background, the area residents each received a flag and posed for a photo while those watching applauded them for their accomplishment. This recognition of naturalized citizens and marking of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day came as part of Welcoming Week, an annual week-long celebration of bringing local residents together to build an inclusive community.
Welcoming Week is an opportunity to celebrate the value refugees and immigrants bring to the community and region, Project Fine Executive Director Fatima Said said.
Said wants to build unity throughout the community. “When you provide opportunity for meaningful interaction like Welcoming Week activities, we eliminate fear between people,” she said. “We bring people together. We share stories.” It is all about giving people the chance to develop friendships and see one another as human beings, she said.
This year’s other events included a celebration at the St. Charles Public Library, a training on how to develop a welcoming atmosphere, a bike tour of Winona with Mayor Scott Sherman, a presentation about the culture of the Philippines, an open house at the Winona Family YMCA and the opportunity to paint pieces of a mural about community members’ cultures and traditions by Winona Creative Laureate Sarah Johnson.
As someone who came to the U.S. as a refugee, Said has first-hand experience with the benefits of feeling welcomed to the country and wanting to pay that positivity forward. “My community, when I arrived, invested in me goodwill and kindness. So Project Fine’s mission and Welcoming Week’s mission is really to now continue to do that,” she said.
Recognizing new Americans is very special for Said, she said, as naturalized citizens take the Constitution to heart. “Passing that citizenship test is a culmination of all our dreams and hopes,” she said at the event.
A Winona woman who recently became an American citizen agreed and spoke of how it took years and lots of studying with friends for the citizenship test during the pandemic to achieve her dream.
Sherman welcomed newcomers to the community and described his own experience with coming to care for his neighbors and community. Referring to Afghan refugees coming to Wisconsin, Sherman said, “And honestly that makes us better. All of us.”
The celebration of naturalized citizens was not the only event that touched Said, she said. At an open house at St. Charles’ public library, women who immigrated from Laos showcased their dancing, and some long-term residents told Said they had not realized people from Laos lived in the small town.
Said is grateful for community members who take part in Welcoming Week. “Belonging is very important for all of us,” she said. “When you belong and you feel that you are in your own community, you perform better, you’re happier. It’s a healthy way of building a healthier and better community for everyone.”
Each year, the partnerships that Project Fine has with other groups to celebrate Welcoming Week grow, Said said, and more long-term residents of the community participate in the festivities. “It’s so good to see that more and more people join us, because if you really want to build a strong community, you need everyone,” she said.