Photo taken by Amer Mughawish of a neon yellow sign that reads you belong here

Creating Community and Finding Belonging

Leani García Torres

Just because you make it here, doesn’t mean you’re set up to belong and thrive. That sentiment stuck with me on a recent visit to the Tenement Museum in New York. I was sitting in the Epstein family’s recreated dining room, a couple who had lost everything and nearly everyone in the Holocaust, met and married in a displaced persons camp, and against all odds created a new life in New York’s Lower East Side. But just because they had made it here, it didn’t mean they automatically belonged, or had access to all the tools and services that could ease their transition into a new life. They had to work hard to find and build community.

When it comes to immigration, many of us think of our family or our nation’s history, or of the seemingly intractable political debate that so often divides instead of unites. But I think we also have an opportunity to see the fundamental human desire and striving for community and belonging. I see the promise of our country as a beacon to those from around the world nearly every day. I feel privileged that my daughter is growing up in an environment where she takes for granted that the women at the grocery store reinforce the Spanish I’m teaching her at home, and where the staff making the Trinidadian doubles and roti at my mother-in-law’s favorite roti shop know her by name, or that she’s just as likely to hear Haitian Creole, English, Spanish, or Arabic at the Yemeni-immigrant owned bodega where we get bagels and smoothies on the weekends.

Living in Brooklyn is a constant reminder of the promise that draws people in, the hard work it takes to build a life here, and ultimately the beautiful and layered outcome of a long process of finding community and belonging. But it can also be a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It was on that same tour where we learned that even after seeing the newsreels and hearing accounts of the horrors of World War II, a majority of Americans were against accepting more refugees and displaced individuals from the war. It reminded me of a college professor who had handed out anti-immigrant cartoons and made us guess when they were published; the rhetoric felt right at home in 2008 even though it was from the early 1900s, and the same is true today. Even when we are aware of the horrors many people are trying to escape, questions of culture, fitting in, and the economic burden versus the contributions inevitably arise — no matter how many times and how many examples can be produced to dispel the myths.

Our immigration system is hopelessly outdated — it hasn’t been meaningfully updated since 1990 leaving us with a system that predates the modern internet, cell phones, and our current geopolitical and economic climate. There are countless bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult to get here, thrive here, and build community here, no matter what is driving you to come. But just like my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I see hope in communities across the country who are working together to make their towns a place where everyone can belong, contribute, and thrive. From making services accessible in commonly spoken languages, to finding creative ways for entrepreneurs to access small business loans that are religiously compliant, to celebrating the various cultures of all the town’s residents, and more.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, the Epstein family actively sought a community — whether through the Jewish day schools that their daughters attended, the Yiddish music they played at home, or the community groups they joined. But they also sought ways for their girls to find a home right where they were, and build a life bridging where their parents had come from, and where they were now. These were opportunities created by those who had come before them and sought to create a slice of belonging on the Lower East Side. 

As we celebrate Welcoming week, I have hope that despite the harsh rhetoric we hear today,  we can all be about the work of creating belonging, and that my daughter and her generation can continue to experience the rich tapestry that makes the United States so unique — a place where our differences can be celebrated, but can also create a complex, intertwined community where we all have the opportunity to co-create together, belong, and thrive.

*Photo by Amer Mughawish on Unsplash