What better way to show how welcoming our community is than by recognizing the accomplishments of immigrants, refugees and providers in the Fort Wayne area? As lead organizer of Welcoming Fort Wayne, I was excited to collaborate with several organizations for the first Welcoming Fort Wayne Diversity Awards event on Sept. 21.
This idea was the brainchild of Irene Paxia, executive director of Amani Family Services. Her desire to recognize those championing the immigrant community resulted in 12 community partners coming together: Amani Family Services, Associated Churches, Catholic Charities, the city of Fort Wayne, the YMCA, Purdue Fort Wayne, Trinity English Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne Community Schools, Many Nations Church, Friends of the Third World, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and Welcoming Fort Wayne.
We selected Sept. 21 for the event because it fell during national Welcoming Week, a week every September where welcoming communities around the country celebrate newcomers in a variety of ways. A Nominations Committee was quickly formed and another committee began organizing the event. Purdue Fort Wayne graciously offered a convening space and covered associated catering costs, while professional photographer Ellie Bogue jumped at the opportunity to take photographs.
Two awardees received the Positive Role Model award – Pong Simon and Alice Jordan-Miles. Pong is often referred to as an ambassador of the Mon people, and Alice works with first-generation college students. As creator and lead editor of the El Mexicano newspaper, Fernando Zapari was the winner of the Entrepreneur of Excellence award. Josefina Cervantes earned the Lifetime Achievement award for her dedication to community activism and families in crisis.
Rabia Ibrahim's enthusiastic involvement with the Burmese community and her love of language earned her the Youth Leader award. Attorney Sam Jarjour received the Social Justice award for his advocacy of Middle Eastern affairs. The International House earned the Community Organization award for its holistic programming offered to immigrants and refugees. And, finally, Catholic Charities won the Diverse Company of the Year award because of its mission and diverse staff.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with each award recipient to learn more about their motivations for serving the newcomer community. We laughed and cried together, and a core value of leading with humility was shared by everyone. I'm forever grateful to know them and will always remain in awe of what they do for our community.
The Welcoming Fort Wayne Diversity awards ceremony was more than a feel-good event. Although national discourse warrants such celebrations, we wanted to recognize those who work diligently and silently behind the scenes. In fact, one elected official remarked that he skipped a ribbon-cutting to stay for the entire event: “It seemed important to be here.”
On behalf of the entire committee, we thank you and all of those who participated and supported the event. Great things come from collaboration and even greater things happen when people recognize one another's achievements. There was definitely a shared sense of humanity the morning of Sept. 21, and we look forward to next year's event.
Melissa Rinehart, a cultural anthropologist, is a lead organizer for Welcoming Fort Wayne.