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Immigration Project Opens Welcoming Center In Normal

Immigration Project
The Immigration Project (seen hear during a food distribution in 2020) has expanded services with a Welcoming Center that will coordinate social service program access for immigrants seeking help.

The Immigration Project is taking a new holistic approach to services.

Traditionally, the project has offered legal services, but now has expanded offerings with a new Welcoming Center on Landmark Drive in Normal. Hannah Mesouani manages the center with two caseworkers.

“The journey to residency and citizenship is about so much more than just paperwork, though that paperwork is absolutely vital,” said Mesouani.“It’s also about forging connections within the community and navigating the labyrinth of social services and agencies to actually get to the help that is on offer. It’s a whole marathon before you can even begin the process, and we’re here to help alleviate some of those challenges.”

Messouani said accessing services is a "spider's web" that is difficult to navigate.

"What we see is a lot of compounding of needs. So, let's say we have somebody who is experiencing homelessness. Chances are they are also struggling with food insecurity. Chances are there is a level of depression perhaps or a level of social isolation So, oftentimes we' find that somebody comes in with one need and the more time we can spend with folks the more we can support the person," said Mesouani.

She said the center will build on program offerings in other parts of the community and refer people to those services, adding the one-stop-shop focus is important because many people hear about services from other people.

"Say we have an international soul coming here. They are tied in with a couple of different friends. They don't know the first place to look for things. Where do I begin? So, you go somewhere you realize, you can help me with this. By chance, can you help me with that? So, we have relied a lot on our word of mouth," said Mesouani.

She said the center also will work with community partners such as the Town of Normal that offer education for non-immigrants. She said they are in talks to create joint workshops, too.

"To break down walls and create community bonding and cross cultural conversations where some of our domestic senior citizens can engage more with our international folks, but then also some of the international seniors who use town services can become are aware of some of the other supports in the community," said Mesouani.

She said 60% of the immigrant population in Bloomington Normal is south Asian. Immigrants from Mexico make up the second largest share. And there is a not insignificant Congolese population as well.

A Department of Human Services grant is funding the welcoming center in Normal and a couple dozen similar operations run by different groups across the state. The Welcoming Center will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and on from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. 

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.