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United Nations of Shorewood: Local Groups Aid Immigrants, Connect Cultures

Milwaukee-area groups with deep roots in the village like AFS and the Burmese Immersion Project are cultivating Shorewood's worldview by working to support immigrants and refugees, connect people from around the globe and promote cultural understan

The mix of cultures and nationalities packed within the village’s one square mile is a source of pride for Shorewood residents, Ravenna Helson says.

"Shorewood sees itself as a diverse community," says Helson, co-president of the Shorewood AFS student exchange program "It welcomes it, because it believes it can learn about other cultures and that other people's solutions can to add to it."

Shorewood’s chapter of AFS — formerly known as American Field Service — is one of the oldest and most active in the nation, Helson boasts. It’s one of many international programs with deep connections to the village. The Burmese Immersion Project (BIP Paw) and Nepalese Family Group are working to aid immigrants and refugees, connect people from around the globe and promote cultural understanding.

'Building bridges'

Helson sees AFS as a medium for students to immerse themselves into new cultures. Shorewood students spend time living abroad, while young people from other countries live with Shorewood families for up to a year.

“Shorewood is a community of families, and we value our schools, so AFS is a pretty good fit,” she says.

Helson, a Quaker, sees AFS as a tool for peace. Her daughter participated in the program, going to France for a year.

"She came home a different individual," she said. "She found herself. It was a year of self-learning"

AFS actually started during World War I, then was re-activated during World War II, as Americans volunteered to drive ambulances in war-stricken nations.

“The thought was, if these people knew these people, they wouldn’t be killing each other,” she says.

“Shorewood is an epicenter,” says BIP Paw program coordinator Bob Heffernan, referring to the AFS program where he used to be a liaison. “We have the best because we’ve been around the longest, are the most developed, most consistent. It’s a jewel in the community."

Balancing integration with preserving culture

Kalyani Rai says she has spent her life educating immigrants.

“I’m a part of The Nepalese Family that has settled in the Shorewood area; there are about 16 families,” says Rai, who has taught at UW-Milwaukee for 16 years, currently as an assistant professor in the School of Continuing Education. "Their children are going to the high schools and middle schools and they are paying taxes and buying homes."

Rai recently helped jumpstart a school for the Nepalese community housed in . The school wasn't her initiative, Rai says, but came from the Nepalese community as a way to retain their culture and language while learning how to "mix and integrate into the world around them."

She says when refugees and immigrants come to the United States, there's a sense they have to assimilate regardless of whether they're isolated or not.

"I think this Nepalese community is completely isolated," she said "And, I think the assimilation and isolation strategy is not going to work for the Nepalese immigrant. How do you gain that balance, that's what I really struggle with."

'A chance to interact'

With BIP Paw, Shorewood’s Jennifer Conigliaro tutors Burmese refugees in the Milwaukee area ranging from ages 2 to 50. Volunteers serve as cultural mentors and academic tutors to those who emigrated from Burma and surrounding countries to Milwaukee.

“We are meeting the needs of the refugees as we see them,” she says. “In addition to meeting their ESL (English as a Second Language) needs, we do social things, we take them to the zoo, take them to the fireworks — we give them a chance to interact.”

BIP Paw draws the majority of its volunteers and supporters from Shorewood to help in its ESL program and resettlement work, Conigliaro said.

“I can’t believe how many people from Shorewood have come over to work with me, it’s overwhelming,” she said.

Conigliaro says when she moved from the east side of Milwaukee to Shorewood, she was amazed at the diverse crowd of children on the playground at .

“I mean, who would know there’s a bunch of Nepalese children dancing in the church down the block?" Heffernan said.

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