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Plexus Network Night at Platform Beer Co.; From Refugee to Neighbor Part 2: Understanding Public Policy and Community Impact

On Wednesday, May 10th, we first stopped off at Plexus Network Night which took place at "Platform Beer Co." on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland.

We could only stay a short time but we got to meet Mr. Ron Sheth, Operations Business Support Specialist, with "Nationwide" that sponsored the event. This was Mr. Sheth's first time at a Plexus gathering and he was a very nice guy so we hope to see more of him there. 

We also got to meet Ms. Katie Klonowski, Director of Operations, and Ms. Joann Huge, Private Dining and Catering, with "Pura Vida" restaurant located on Euclid Avenue near Public Square. Both Ms. Klonowski and Ms. Huge have just started attending Plexus events and hope to attend more; we, ourselves, recall going to "Pura Vida" for several social events in the last several years.

We left Plexus and headed over to our next event which was a community forum entitled "From Refugee to Neighbor Part 2: Understanding Public Policy and Community Impact" hosted by "LakewoodAlive" and taking place in the sanctuary at the Lakewood Congregational Church on West Clifton Blvd. in Lakewood.

This forum was a continuation of one which we also attended in the Lakewood Library in November 2015. Mr. Ian Andrews, Executive Director of "LakewoodAlive" anticipated a large crowd this time (and he was right because the sanctuary was quite full) so it was moved from the Library to the Church. Nevertheless, Lakewood Library's presence was apparent because it taped the program and Ms. Debbie Sulak and Ms. Judy Grzybowski staffed a table containing quite a few Library books pertaining to immigrants and refugees including Ms. Margaret W. Wong's book, "The Immigrant's Way."

Several public officials were present and we recognized Cuyahoga County Councilperson Dale Miller, Lakewood City Councilperson Cindy Marx, and Lakewood Mayor Michael Summers who would later address us for a moment or two.

The format of the program consisted of Mr. David Dombrowiak, President and Chief Executive Officer for the "Community West Foundation," asking questions of a panel consisting of:

***Ms. Janus Small, Facilitator, "Refugee Services Collaborative"

***Mr. Brian Upton, Executive Director of "Building Hope in the City"

***Mr. Patrick Kearns, Executive Director of "The Refugee Response"

***Mr. Tom Mrosko, Director of Migration and Refugee Services for "Catholic Charities"

***Mr. Thomas Kate, Employment Coordinator for "The Refugee Response"

The program started with a few words by Mr. Andrews who said that Lakewood's refugee population was very important to the community and thus it was very important that we work with them. He then said that what he hoped would come of this would be an increased dialogue between neighbors about this issue. They wouldn't necessarily have to agree but civil discourse was essential. Regarding the current political climate, Mr. Andrews said that "we will not buy into thoughts of fear."

Likewise, Mr. Dombrowiak, himself a Lakewood resident, said that this evening would be devoted to developing an increased understanding about our new neighbors who are refugees. He was very proud (as he should be) of the work that the "Community West Foundation" has done to support refugees including donating/granting hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last five years to help refugees settle into new homes and cultures in the Cleveland area and producing 10 short films (which we viewed at a screening in late 2015 at the Capitol Theater) about individual refugees.

During the course of the questioning (from both Mr. Dombrowiak and from the audience during the Q and A) some of the things that were said were:

***Mr. Mrosko reviewed the policies of the Trump administration regarding travel bans and the number of refugees that will be admitted in the United States. The total number of refugees admitted into the U.S. in 2016 was 85,000 but it will probably be only 50,000 this year. It was previously expected that maybe 450 refugees would be resettled in Cleveland in 2017 but now only between 200-300 are expected. Due to such low numbers, Mr. Mrosko sadly said his office has had to layoff people and organizations that deal with refugees in Columbus and Akron have closed. During the course of the evening, he also shared other statistics about refugees such as which Cleveland communities they have so far settled in and how many as well as where they are expected to be settled in the future.

***Mr. Upton and Mr. Kearns agreed that the Trump administration policies have motivated many people to volunteer their services to assist refugees and Mr. Mrosko concurred saying that the number of people requesting to volunteer has more than doubled and 10% of them significantly are from Lakewood.

***In discussing the challenges faced by refugees, Mr. Upton said that perhaps the biggest one was the building of meaningful relations outside of the immigrant/refugee community which will help them to move forward. He went on to say that the refugee community is by no means homogeneous in terms of "cultural and educational attainment"- a good number of them were professionals in the native lands before being forced to flee. Unfortunately, without the proper credentials they cannot do the work (i.e. doctors, lawyers) here that they did at home and often have to do take jobs for which they are overqualified which is quite a "humbling" experience. Nevertheless, he noted that one common thread that distinguishes them is a drive to work and a trend towards wanting to start a small business.

***Mr. Kate recalled his own experience as a Karen refugee (an ethnic group living in Southeast Asia) from Burma who lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for 12 years before he came to the U.S. At the camp, he taught high school which he could not automatically do once he was here. Therefore he worked at the Ohio City farm for a couple of years while learning English and eventually taking some college classes. He acknowledged that it was tough starting over here in the U.S. but he finally became a citizen last year and when he said this the audience applauded.

***Ms. Small went into detail about how the "Refugee Services Collaborative" came to be founded in order to share resources and to avoid duplicate efforts. Today it is regarding as a model of its kind and has been written about both nationally and internationally. She noted that a commissioned study showed that refugees are indeed an economic asset to the community and that this study is in the process of being updated; accordingly the results will be released in June, 2017 and everyone anticipates upbeat results.

***In discussing the education of refugee children, Mr. Kearns described the great work that the "Thomas Jefferson Newcomers Academy" is doing and how the Lakewood schools have created partnerships to help the young students outside of the classroom. He shared that one cultural difference that is apparent involves parent-teacher conferences which worries some of the refugee parents because in their native lands such meetings only take place if the student is in trouble but it takes them a while to adjust to the fact that such meetings take place for the purpose of sharing the child's progress with his/her parents. A point worth mentioning is that during the Q and A a person who works at "Thomas Jefferson" gave a testimony about how moving the experience has been for her.

***Addressing the subject of discrimination, Mr. Upton said that there were reports of some harassment just after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and after the initial travel ban but he believed that the situation now has "quieted down. Later he talked about the different stages of trauma a refugee often goes through including having to flee his/her native land and having to live for years in a refugee camp but the most trauma and confusion occurs when a refugee has to resettle in a new land and get used to a new culture. Fortunately, however, our refugee services are aware of this and provide appropriate counseling.

***From his own experience, Mr. Kearns said that often times what is really hard for refugees (who are getting used to a new language and new ways of doing things) to do are things that are relatively simple for us like properly obtaining a refill on a prescription. He went on to discuss a mentoring program that has proven to work quite well with young refugees grades K-12. Mr. Upton chimed in and said to be a mentor is sometimes quite challenging (there is always a need for them) but if a person has time and patience it can also be quite rewarding.

Perhaps the most rousing time of the night was a short speech that Mayor Michael Summers of Lakewood gave near the start of the program. He thanked us all for taking time out of schedules to be there to discuss "a very important and complex subject."

Just like everyone else, as he interpreted it, what refugees who live in Lakewood seek are safety, affordability, convenience, acceptance and to be treated with dignity. Therefore, Mayor Summers was proud to part of the Lakewood community which is inclusive and accepting of diversity.

He confessed that the No. 1 issue that the Lakewood government frequently encounters is neighbors bickering at each other over trite matters but he couldn't recall when a cultural divide had anything to do with it. He did recall one incident, though, when a refugee family's home caught on fire and they were reluctant to leave their belongings because they were suspicious of the fire department since there were no such services in their native land. Fortunately, however, the firefighters managed to find a translator who assured the family that no harm would come to them or their belongings.

The mayor went on to say that two staples of a fiscally stable area were productivity of assets and a growing populace. On the latter point, though, the Cleveland area is showing a decline. Because of this, Mayor Summers firmly believed that it is imperative that we embrace newcomers and this very definitely includes immigrants and refugees-there is not even the luxury of a debate, it is a "core competency."

Towards the end of the program, Mayor Summers was asked if Lakewood was a Sanctuary City. Mayor Summer replied that is was not but very firmly affirmed that everyone here is treated equally regardless of their citizenship status.

At this point the mayor received a round of applause that we enthusiastically took part in.


Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC