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Bloomington marks Welcoming Week with international soccer game and downtown music

Bloomington City Council member Donna Boelen.
Jeffrey Smudde
WGLT file
Bloomington City Council member Donna Boelen.

The City of Bloomington’s Welcoming Week events continue through the weekend, with an international soccer game, music, and a speech from an immigrant to the city council.

The national Welcoming Week celebration is now in its 10th year, though it’s relatively new in Bloomington. The city in 2021 joined the related Welcoming Network, a nonprofit group that prides itself on creating inclusive environments for immigrants through community engagement, job training and other initiatives.

Bloomington’s Welcoming Week festivities began last weekend, with Bloomington Mboka Mwilambwe (an immigrant himself) read a proclamation aloud in English and French in downtown Bloomington. A representative from the Immigration Project read it in Spanish.

The next planned events are international music at Saturday’s downtown Bloomington farmers market; an international soccer game at 3 p.m. Saturday at White Oak Park; and an immigrant speech during the Bloomington City Council meeting at 6 p.m. Monday.

Council member Donna Boelen, who has championed the effort, said Welcoming Week is an annual celebration of what goes on year-round in Bloomington.

“Most of the community isn’t aware of a lot of different services provided to the immigrant community,” said Boelen.

She said that includes nonprofits like Bloomington’s Western Avenue Community Center, which operates a robust Hispanic outreach program. Additionally, the Immigration Project provides immigration legal assistance to the 100,000 immigrants residing in Central and Southern Illinois.

She says her interest in the immigrant experience dates back many years, when she was working at a food-processing facility to help put herself through college. “I was the only white girl there,” she said.

That time with her Spanish-speaking co-workers -- working to provide for themselves or their families -- became a learning experience.

“I had just finished high school, with four years of Spanish. I was able to interact with them, and it was really an enjoyable experience. So when I came here and saw an opportunity to engage with and include immigrants, I thought, well yeah, that makes perfect sense,” Boelen said.

Boelen is clear about where she hopes this more welcoming posture will lead.

“Let’s be frank: There are a lot of people that go, ‘I don’t want immigrants in my community. I don’t want to have them in my workplace. Whatever.’ But it’s like, no, they have families. They’re trying to feed their families. They’re no different than you and I. Let’s sit down and interact, and then some of that – whether it’s fear or dislike – probably will go away,” Boelen said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Jayla Johnson is a reporting and audio intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2022.
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