Central Indiana’s Immigrants and Refugees

People from more than 120 nations call Central Indiana home. They have left their home countries to start a new life as immigrants and refugees. This special episode of For Good, features representatives from the immigrant and refugee communities discussing their hopes and fears about living in Indianapolis. Leaders from two organizations that support resettlement will also weigh-in on the realities of life in America for these residents.

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Transcription of episode available below.

Angela Cain – Angela Cain Communications
Ally Mulumba Ntumba – CICF community ambassador & case manager at Exodus Refugee
Cole Varga – executive director at Exodus Refugee
Terri Morris Downs – executive director at Immigrant Welcome Center
Dabrice Bartet – CICF community ambassador
Graham Melendez – natural helper at Immigrant Welcome Center

Immigrant Welcome Center
-view detailed statistics in their Indianapolis Immigration Integration Plan here
Exodus Refugee
-learn facts and figures about refugees here
Learn more about our community ambassadors
Woman finds dream job through Exodus Refugee – a story from 2017 about Priscilla Lalthanmawii and her 12-year-old son 

Welcome to, For Good, Central Indiana Community Foundation’s podcast, highlighting stories about passion, purpose and progress in Central Indiana. At CICF, we believe in opportunity and equity. We believe that our communities and neighborhoods are stronger because of our diversity. And we believe that with innovation and boldness, central Indiana can be a place where everyone can reach their full potential, no matter their place, race or identity. This is our community and these are your stories.

Imagine fleeing for your life from your homeland or choosing to move to a new country. Nearly 90,000 foreign born residence have braved that unpredictable journey and made Marion County their home. They are refugees and immigrants, some of them CICF Ambassadors.

I’m Angela Cain, your host for this special episode of, For Good. You’ll hear what it takes for them to build a new life in Central Indiana, stories of joy, challenges and hope, and learn what they fear most. CICF believes, when we listen, we learn.

ALI: Our appointment is tomorrow.

Ali Mulumba Ntumba is at work in Indianapolis today, happy to be here from the first moment he stepped foot in America in 2013, as a refugee.

What was it like to come to America?

ALI: To come to America was for me, to get a safe place and also to be in peace.

To be safe, to have peace, something Ali says many Americans may take for granted. He’s far away from the armed conflict and turbulence in his homeland in central Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, Ali was on the run. His life in danger. He says he was a government target as a human rights activist and journalist.

ALI: People were arrested for nothing. People were killed because this is their own true expressions, their opinions.

Watching his colleagues arrested and killed, gives Ali overwhelming appreciation for the rights inscribed in America’s Constitution.

ALI M.: Freedom, especially freedom of- of expression.

Ali is free to raise his voice here. He is one of 36 ambassadors, recruited to help the Central Indiana Community Foundation better understand our communities and population groups. Ali interviewed Congolese refugees who live in his neighborhood and he says they, just like him, love Indianapolis.

ALI: This is a beautiful city. I meet nice people, [laughs] so I thank God for that.

And Ali and his neighbors appreciate food here, getting to eat every day. They come from a conflict wracked country where many are homeless and food is scarce.

ALI: Some places to eat is like hope, you praise the Lord when you get food.

But one challenge for them in Indianapolis, the cost of living. Ali discovered that his neighbors would like more affordable housing and living expenses.

ALI: We have to support our families here, people don’t understand that.

You support your families here and overseas.

ALI: Yes. And overseas.

Many Congolese refugees financially support families back home in the Congo, where there are few jobs and few opportunities.

Ali’s job allows him to support refugees as well. He is a case worker at Exodus Refugee, helping them get the care and services they need in Central Indiana.

Exodus is where some refugees lives begin again. It’s a humanitarian refugee resettlement program on the Indianapolis, near east side and it’s a shelter for the storm for refugees.

COLE: Refugee is someone who’s fled their home country because of persecution, injustice or war. Their life was threatened, their home was destroyed by bombing, they were persecuted for their religion, for their race, their political identity.

Cole Varga is the Executive Director of Exodus Refugee. It is one of five organizations in Indiana serving refugees that the US government invites to our state.

COLE: So it’s someone not making the choice to immigrate, it’s someone fleeing for their lives, quite literally, because of their own safety and the safety of their children.

On most days at Exodus, you hear new refugees, woman, men and their children, taking English language classes. But Exodus helps them pick up the pieces of their lives before they even step off the plane.

COLE: We’re there at the airport to welcome them. We have an apartment set up for them, furnished with donated items.

Exodus also provides cultural orientation and medical, social and employment services for refugees.

COLE: The backbone of the Refugee Resettlement Program is early employment.

One of the refugee’s biggest challenges, the language barrier. That’s why Exodus offers English classes, to help them live and work here.

COLE: There are so many jobs in Central Indiana right now that we cannot fill them quickly enough. There’s a lot of entry level, specifically these pick and pack warehouses that have popped up in the last decade or so around the periphery of Indianapolis.

For people concerned that refugees are taking jobs away from Americans, Cole Varga says …

COLE: The fact is, those jobs are still vacant and we have many refugees here that are happy to take them and- and make an impact for their family financially, but also contribute back to the city that they’ve now call home.

But Cole is concerned that with today’s political climate, fewer refugees are finding a safe-haven in America.

COLE: President Obama had left office calling for a hundred and ten thousand refugees to enter the country. This year, the president has set an all time low ceiling of 45,000 individuals that we’ll invite to the country. It’s unclear if we’ll actually make it to that. I think we may end up more at 20,000 refugees for the year as a nation. It means that we’re going back on our commitments to tens of thousands of refugees that thought they would have a home here. It means we’re giving away our leadership role in humanitarian aid.

And Cole refutes arguments that refugees pose a security threat to our nation.

COLE: It takes, typically, a year and a half or two years to go through the US vetting process, it is actually the hardest way to get into the US.

Cole says President Trump’s immigration policies have slowed the flow of refugees to Exodus from nearly 1,000 is 2016, to potentially 200 this year, leaving hundreds with no place to call home.

TERRY: It’s never good when you’re turning off the rest of the world to coming to the United States.

Terry Morris Downs is the Executive Director of the Immigrant Welcome Center, near downtown Indianapolis.

It connects immigrants to people, places and resources to build successful lives here. And Terry says, unlike refugees, immigrants aren’t fleeing for their lives, unsure where they’ll live, immigrants choose to move here.

TERRY: And they dream big dreams, they hold very, very strong hope for what the United States of America can be for them.

But Dabrice Bartet feels fear first hand. She immigrated to Indianapolis 35 years ago and she’s more uncertain about the future for immigrants than ever before.

DABRICE: Every single day you’ll wake up with all this anger, negativity and all this hate. People showing their true faces, because our leader is, you know, make it okay. And that’s very sad. People come here because they love America, so it’s kind of disappointing when America doesn’t love back.

Sobering words from a woman who has loved this city for more than three decades, a woman who volunteers as an ambassador for the Central Indiana Community Foundation. Interviewing her neighbors about the challenges and opportunities here. Dabrice immigrated from France, but grew up in the nation of Togo in West Africa.

DABRICE: I just think it is important to tell our story.

Dabrice says many of her neighbors, African immigrants from all walks of life, chose to come here for the American dream, a better life for their families, their children.

DABRICE: Well, you will see some people with a bachelor, master or even a doctor, that will come, but because the degree is not recognized, so they just go and work.

Many African immigrants gave up their careers to come to America, but Dabrice says they are grateful for what this country offers them.

DABRICE: Even though they’re working in warehouses, it’s self-worth when you’re able to provide for your family.

They work around the clock to make ends meet, something her African neighbors have adopted as the American way. But it is a cultural shift that challenges their priorities.

DABRICE: Your purpose of coming here is defeated, because that family, you won’t be able to build that family and have that strong bond.

And when surveying her neighbors, Dabrice found that they often feel isolated.

DABRICE: We need to educate the Indianapolis population of not be so afraid of foreigners. We’re just like you.

GRAHAM: Racism is being faced by many immigrants and it’s not just subtle, it’s very overt.

Graham Melindez is a natural helper at the Immigrant Welcome Center, volunteers who are immigrants themselves. They relate to their clients’ challenges and often speak their language.

Graham’s family moved to America from Peru when he was 8 years old. He says some immigrants in the US today feel they’re on shaky ground.

GRAHAM: Every immigrant is fearing that they will be not here tomorrow. And can you imagine going to bed at night thinking, tomorrow might be the last day I am here. And especially as a child.

Or they worry new immigration policies will prevent their families from moving here.

GRAHAM: It’s like they have bought a ticket to a place they thought that would be filled with so much happiness and love for them and to find out that their American dream became the American nightmare.

Terry Morris Downs, at the Immigrant Welcome Center, admits the future is murky with increasing immigration restrictions.

TERRY: We are in a nation of immigrants. Sometimes it’s hard for people to remember that. Or sometimes I hear, well at least my great-grand parents came over the legal way. And, you know, back then if you could get on a boat and sign in at Ellis Island, you’re good to go. I mean there weren’t immigration laws like there are today.

Despite the fears on both sides, Terry says the immigrant population in Central Indiana hasn’t decreased. The Immigrant Welcome Center still serves 3,500 immigrants a year. And the Immigrant Welcome Center has created an Immigrant Integration Plan to identify and address their biggest needs, such as language accessibility, entrepreneurship and transportation.

TERRY: I hear so many times, too, you know, where’s the train? I don’t know how to drive or I don’t have enough money to own or operate a car.

Terry believes that immigrants enrich us. They are a part of us and they leave an impressive imprint across central Indiana and America. The foreign-born population contributes more than 800 million dollars a year in taxes in greater Indianapolis and nine billion dollars a year to our GDP, the goods and services produced here.

TERRY: Look at the number of immigrant owned restaurants that we have in Indianapolis compared to 20 years ago. It’s amazing. When you look at so many American companies that were actually started by immigrants, that employ hundreds of thousands and millions of Americans nationally, it’s not, in my opinion, good economic sense to say, we need to limit immigration.

Those who support immigrants and refugees believe they contribute to prosperity for the nation, building a better tomorrow. And many supporters here protested when President Trump first attempted to bar some Muslim majority countries from entering the US.

COLE: The best representation of that is that very first weekend when people stood up at airports across the country and definitely here at Indianapolis airport and were screaming at the top of their lungs that this was- this was not who we are as a country.

In acts both big and small, Terry says, it’s easy to welcome your new neighbors.

TERRY: Sometimes it is just taking the time to smile and say, ‘I hope we can sit down, I’d love to hear your story.’

And Graham Melendez and Dabrice Bartet remind us that we are all more alike than different. They are still hopeful that our common humanity will bridge any divide.

GRAHAM: See us as people who can love, people who can give, people who can serve, people who can laugh, people who can cry, just see us as the people we are. We are no different.

DABRICE: I just hope that everybody come to embrace the foreigners, to see the beauty, the- what everybody have to offer.

GRAHAM: We have such a heart for all people, just have a heart for us, too.

Immigrants and refugees are our neighbors, wanting the same things in life that we do. Success, safety and happiness. CICF wants that for everyone, too and will continue to listen to the community and share your stories. I’m Angela Cain and I hope you’ve enjoyed this special episode of, For Good.

We are Central Indiana Community Foundation and you’ve been listening to, For Good. If you liked what you heard today, we hope you’ll subscribe to For Good, on your favorite podcast app. And while you’re there, don’t forget to leave us a review. Join us next month for more stories about passion, purpose and progress in Central Indiana.

For Good is brought to you by Central Indiana Community Foundation, in partnership with WFYI Public Media. Thank you for listening.


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