Governor Lincoln Chafee declared last week Rhode Island Welcoming Week and to kick it off Welcoming Rhode Island, a community-based initiative that focuses on integrating immigrants into their new communities, threw a party.
Members of Welcoming Rhode Island gathered at Gallery Z on Federal Hill Sept. 15 to mingle with other immigrants, refugees and second-generation Americans. The party was one of many upcoming events being hosted by Welcoming Rhode Island.
Michelle DePlante, Welcoming Rhode Island coordinator, said the initiative is less about training immigrants on how to acclimate to their new country and more about educating natives about the immigrant members of their community.
“This really looks at the outside community,” said DePlante. “We can help the immigrant by teaching them English and having them apply for citizenship, but we also need to recognize the receiving community members.”
By bridging the gap between natives and immigrants, DePlante said the Welcoming Rhode Island program helps to build stronger communities.
“Regardless of what country you’re born or even what city in Rhode Island, we all share common values,” she said. “It’s about humanizing [immigrants].”
At the Welcoming Rhode Island kick off event at Gallery Z, nine members of the initiative were honored for their participation in an advertising campaign that will be featured on RIPTA buses this fall. Among those being featured are Manuela Raposo of Warwick and Haruki Kibe of Cranston.
New York-born Raposo is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. After serving in the military and being stationed in Germany, Raposo briefly lived in Rhode Island before moving to the Dominican Republic with her husband. There she received her education and became a practicing physician.
But personal matters pushed Raposo to move back to the U.S. to be with her family in 2004. What she found when she arrived back in Rhode Island was that her training and education were mostly useless.
“I faced many struggles,” said Raposo, who at the time was basically homeless and living with her mother. As a single mom, Raposo was determined to make ends meet.
Because of her advanced degrees, Raposo was denied public assistance, yet she was also blocked from using her education to obtain a comparable job to the one she had in the DR. When Raposo asked for financial assistance with the training she would need to get back into the workforce, she was denied.
“They told me to go get a job at McDonald’s,” she said.
Her own struggles inspired Raposo to pursue her current field, where she works to help people like herself find employment. Raposo has been the Director of Workforce at Dorcas Place, an adult literacy and learning center, since 2005.
“The roadblocks are not insurmountable,” she said. “I try to help pave the way for others like me.”
For Kibe, who owns the Haruki hibachi restaurants in Cranston and Providence, transitioning to life in America was not as difficult as it was for Raposo.
Kibe came to the United States at age 24 to manage a family restaurant in New York City. In 1986 he came to live near a friend in Rhode Island and met the owners of an Italian restaurant in Cranston. He soon began working there, and eventually bought the business from them, turning it into the original Haruki on Park Avenue.
“At the beginning I didn’t think about the business much,” said Kibe. “I was more excited…to introduce Japanese culture and food to American people.”
But eventually he realized he had to make a profit, so he called his friends in New York for advice. Soon, cooking transitioned from a hobby to a lucrative career.
Ten years after he first opened the restaurant, Kibe moved Haruki to Oaklawn Avenue and then opened an additional location in Providence in 2003. Kibe said it wasn’t always easy to sell sushi and Japanese food to Americans, but eventually it caught on. Today, Kibe’s restaurants employ nearly 100 Rhode Islanders.
Both Kibe and Raposo said they joined the Welcoming Rhode Island initiative to meet other immigrants and to form a network through which to share helpful information about services and programs.
DePlante said Welcoming Rhode Island has helped to plan a variety of different events, including an art exhibit of immigrant art and the Heritage Festival.
The organization also has welcoming committees in East Providence and Cranston, which are comprised of people who live and work in those places.
“We’re hoping to move to other cities as well,” said DePlante.
DePlante explained that Welcoming Rhode Island is not policy oriented and is not advocating for any legislation. Instead, its focus is on education and outreach.
“This is really a chance for people who are not immigrants to meet the immigrant in person and really get to know their story, what their struggles are and maybe see that they’re not that different,” she said.
Welcoming Rhode Island is an affiliate of Welcoming America and is sponsored by the International Institute of Rhode Island. Rhode Island is one of 22 states participating in the Welcoming American initiative.