‘We Belong Here’, Hartford Public Library

Louise Marie Puck

Hartford Public Library, a BIA Recognized CLINIC affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut, provides a unique and effective immigrant integration program, which includes a range of legal and educational services to immigrants. The ‘We Belong Here’ program, led by Homa Naficy, is a powerful addition to the growing number of local integration initiatives nationwide. In service to the immigrant integration field, Hartford Public Library developed a toolkit about the “We Belong Here” program to serve as a guide for starting a two-way integration initiative in one’s community.

The ‘We Belong Here’ program began in 2010 with the help of Federal funding. The objective of the initiative was to educate the receiving community on the common misconceptions surrounding immigrants that often nurture hostility, distrust, discomfort, frustration or apathy. The intention was to create an environment that allows immigrants to feel a part of the broader community and achieve meaningful citizenship. 

In so doing, the ‘We Belong Here’ initiative encourages inclusion and connection between immigrants and the receiving community by building networks of trusting relationships. This is accomplished through intentional programming in which U.S.-born citizens and immigrants – from a variety of countries and cultural backgrounds – learn from each other. While these learning exchanges foster better understanding and respect for each other’s differences, they are also designed to unite the community around shared values. This two-way approach to integration is considered impactful on two levels: 1) Immigrants begin to feel increasingly a part of their new surroundings, and 2) members of the receiving community are directly engaged in the process. The desired outcome is for members from both the receiving and immigrant communities to feel they are welcome and belong in America and willingly participate in their local community building efforts.  

Many partners and strategies are involved in this process of two-way integration. The first strategy is to pair a Cultural Navigator with a newly arrived immigrant. The Cultural Navigators may be immigrants themselves who are trained to support newly arrived immigrants by providing both guidance and connections too services. The second strategy is the Immigrant Advisory Group. This group consists of community stakeholders from the Hartford area. Their aim is to foster interagency communication, resource sharing, and increased knowledge of immigrant cultures and experiences. The third strategy is a Community Dialogue Model. This multi-stepped approach engages immigrants and the receiving community in dialogue on topics of mutual concern and is intended to lead to a plan of action. For instance, a Dialogue that began in 2011 in Hartford’s Asylum Hill neighborhood propelled a grass roots movement for the establishment of a Multicultural Center which was a need identified by the neighborhood’s immigrant and long term residents alike. Another significant outcome of the “We Belong Here” initiative was the establishment of the city’s first ever Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in 2013.  

“We Belong Here” creates opportunities for residents to come together irrespective of their differences and facilitates mechanisms for immigrants to actively take part in our nation’s democracy.

If you would like to learn more about how to promote immigrant integration in your community, Hartford Public Library’s We Belong Here: An Initiative for Immigrant and Community Engagement is publically available. You can also reach Homa Naficy directly at naficy@hplct.org.

If you have an integration initiative that you would like CLINIC to highlight, please contact Leya Speasmaker, Integration Program Manager, at lspeasmaker@cliniclegal.org.