The International Institute of Akron’s entryway was filled with at least seven people, some sitting on the bench attached to the wall. I squeezed past the families, nodding hello, and entered the old building on Tallmadge Avenue.
The father on the couch over from me spoke English and mentioned to an employee he needed to sign his wife up for the citizenship test. His daughter, who looked about 4, wore Dora the Explorer sneakers and pink leggings.
I was told this was a very slow day for the office.
“We have more than 400 individuals who come to us in a year looking for help,” said Debbie May-Johnson, executive director of the International Institute of Akron (IIA). “On our class days, we often don’t have enough seats for everyone.”
IIA provides services to the foreign-born population of Akron and the greater Summit County area. The organization’s mission is to contribute to the well-being of the community by creating and implementing programs and services to assist the foreign born to integrate into our society, to promote public awareness of the value of ethnic diversity and to encourage international communication.
IIA provides programs such as refugee resettlement, financial literacy, English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) classes and interpreting and translating services. May-Johnson said ESOL classes are offered five times a week and translators interpret more than 52 languages.
“Their biggest hurdle is speaking English,” she said. “When you don’t speak the language in any country you live or visit in, you become vulnerable and there is a higher potential of being taken advantage of.”
IAA sends out the interpreters to families when they visit places like the hospital. If the agency doesn’t have someone who knows the language, they find an independent translator. Also clients do not just have to be refugees. In IIA’s Annual 2010 report, the agency provided 3,523 non-refugee interpreting hours in response to need in the Akron area.
The agency also offers free citizen preparation classes. “All of our clients get their green cards,” May-Johnson proudly said.
Originally named the International Center, the agency was established in 1916 as part of the YWCA to assist foreign-born women.
Later, services expanded to include all foreign-born families. May-Johnson said over the years there have been many refugees fleeing their countries due to persecution or war. During certain years, immigration trends can be seen. Recently, large amounts of the Bhutanese and Burmese populations are resettling in Akron.
The agency was recently awarded an $18,000 grant from Akron Community Foundation to help fund a refugee volunteer coordinator.
A “small” big city, ideal for immigrants
According to the Refugee International website, in Burma, also known as Myanmar, an estimated 500,000 people are displaced by conflict in eastern Burma and another 800,000 Muslims in western Burma. While Bhutan, wedged between China and India, is considered one of the world’s most isolated countries and the government strictly regulates foreign influences, including tourism, to preserve the country’s Buddhist culture.
An article in USA Today from 2009 discusses an interview with a Burmese refugee who was on his way to the United States. He said relocating to the United States scared him and he didn’t want to end up packing boxes at a clothing store. His ability to speak English would have aided him in his transition process.
It is stories like these that May-Johnson sees and hears about every day at IIA. She said she believes that Akron is a great place for people to settle.
“Many of our clients often have family here or friends. And many of our clients come here with nothing, but grow and flourish,” she said. “I think this has a lot to do with Akron being a small big city. It’s not overwhelming, but there are still many opportunities for people to take part in.”
IIA also takes the time to let refugees learn about U.S. culture. May-Johnson said classes are offered that bring in police officers and firefighters to discuss how the American systems work, because many refugees are used to police forces being a negative aspect in their lives.
The agency wouldn’t be in operation without the help of volunteers, she added. Those willing are trained to teach many of the ESOL classes while others pick up clothing donations and organize items for clients to pick out. Monetary donations are also always accepted by IAA.
“Many of our grants and many grants for any nonprofit are always geared toward special programs, which is great,” May-Johnson said. “However, it’s the unrestricted money that is hard to get. This money goes toward operations and helps keep our lights on.”
It’s funds like these that IIA will need for a new building, which the agency is currently working on. She said the building on Tallmadge Avenue prohibits growth of the group’s mission. A bigger building will provide more opportunities for clients and the staff.
One of the most important things the agency wants, though, is to bring awareness to the community.
Currently, IIA, along with United Way of Summit County, city of Akron, Asia Services in Action, Inc. and Akron International Friendship, plan on collaborating to create Global Village Festival of Greater Akron. This event will take place Sept. 8, and will celebrate international and ethnic diversity in the community. The event will include food, performances and exhibitions.