By Christopher Jones
Fostering a neighborly environment for immigrant and refugee newcomers looks to take a more refined form in the City of Falls Church’s second go around of “Welcoming Week,” which kicks off tomorrow and runs until Sept. 22.
Organized by the group Welcoming Falls Church, a local subsidiary of the nationwide group Welcoming America, the celebration will promote community efforts to provide hospitality for foreigners who’ve come to the U.S. either seeking better opportunities or safety from troubles in their native countries. Over 60 local governments nationwide have joined the non-partisan “Welcoming Cities and Counties” initiative, with the City seeing a variety of community outreach and educational events for this annual commemoration. That includes book lectures by acclaimed novelists, food pantry and language literacy initiatives, a 5K Run/Walk and community outreach activities at the 44th annual Falls Church Festival this Saturday.
On Monday evening at the City’s downtown park, Welcoming Week held a festive kick-off party featuring Falls Church City Mayor David Tarter, Virginia House of Delegates Representative Marcus Simon, Falls Church Councilwoman Letty Hardi, representatives from the Falls Church Education Foundation and outreach speakers from Welcoming Falls Church. With fiddle and folk music setting the ambiance along with clusters of children frolicking on the lawn in the cool summer air, speakers addressed the many positive reasons for promoting a supportive atmosphere for immigrant and refugee arrivals to the City and highlighted the upcoming week’s activities.
Former Falls Church resident Imbolo Mbue, whose novel “Behold the Dreamers” was a New York Times best-seller and earned her the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction, will formally christen the event when she speaks about “Immigration and the American Dream” at the George Mason High School auditorium on Saturday from 9 – 10:30 a.m. She will also meet with teachers from Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and GMHS, hold a book-signing at the Falls Church Festival from 12:30 – 1:15 p.m., and then speak, from 2 – 3:30 p.m., at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library, where she was originally inspired to write her book.
Like two of the main characters in the novel, Mbue grew up in Limbe, Cameroon before she moved to the United States in 1998. After receiving a graduate degree from Columbia University, Mbue moved to New York City where she resides today. How does she feel about Falls Church? “One of the characters in my debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” is from Falls Church,” she told the News-Press, and “I thought it was a beautiful, welcoming city and I made it the birthplace of my character as an homage to the city.”
What inspired Mbue to work with Welcoming Falls Church? “I was thrilled to learn about the great work they do,” she continued. “I am incredibly humbled that they’re giving me an opportunity to return to the city where my writing life began. I found Falls Church to be a diverse and friendly city while I lived there, and I believe it is thanks to great organizations like Welcoming Falls Church.”
At the Falls Church Farmers’ Market this past Saturday, Paul Boesen staffed a table to promote Welcoming Falls Church. As a co-founder of the group, he was first inspired to help welcome immigrants and refugees to the community by a trip to Ellis Island four years ago where he saw a picture of the ship that brought his Danish grandparents to America in 1950.
As Chair of the ESOL Advisory Committee to the Falls Church City Public Schools, Boesen has been struck by the shifting demographics of the City in recent years. He recognizes the need for the local community to organize and provide greater “hospitality and opportunity” for new arrivals from different language or socio-economic backgrounds to “serve everyone’s best interests.” According to Boesen, the FCCPS ESOL student headcount has increased by 51 percent over the last four years. “Society is changing, so we need to grapple with that,” he said, “because if we don’t, the social fabric gets torn beyond repair and who’s going to put it back together?”
For Christine Buchholz, co-founder of Welcoming Falls Church, inspiration to welcome newcomers to the City was drawn from her own family experiences. She recalls how appreciative she was when her neighbors threw a backyard party to welcome her family to the community.
“Having grown up in an immigrant family, I remember each of my family’s moves. There were many neighbors who warmly welcomed us, but there were certainly some who didn’t know how to bridge across language and race barriers and engage with us.”
This past weekend, she said, she and the neighbors who initially welcomed her family to the neighborhood (John and Jeni Porter) threw their own party to welcome newcomers. “We shared in the mission of Welcoming Falls Church — building a community of neighbors — by hosting our own block party” and “were delighted to meet at least four new families” two of whom had come from other countries… It was a wonderful time of reconnecting with old neighbors and welcoming new ones!”
A host of additional events will be held for Welcoming Week. For more information on events, visit welcomingfallschurch.org.