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Mentoring Immigrants

Mentoring Immigrants

CIANA helps immigrants from troubled lands adjust to America.

Children in a CIANA parenting class. All photos courtesy of CIANA.
Adults learning English as a second language.
Members of CIANA’s staff.
March for American immigration reform. Habiby Browne is in front row second from left.

“If I could go out to the airport and start working with them as soon as they landed, I would,” Emira Habiby Browne told me on the day I visited her small office in Astoria, Queens. Her staff was welcoming a group of women, some wearing headscarves, to CIANA (the Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans), a social-services agency Browne founded in 2006 to serve immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.

File 2963“This is their home now, and they’re trying desperately hard to get by,” Browne told me with passion. “They’re focused on day-to-day life: jobs, housing, children, how to find a doctor, how to apply for citizenship. There’s not much time for anything else.” CIANA helps them integrate into American life by linking them up with English and other classes, health care, housing, legal services, and job- skills training. But “integration, not assimilation” is the mantra. “We encourage our clients to adopt essential cultural aspects of American society, and the local community to accept and value the newcomers and their cultural heritage,” says Browne. The goal: Help clients move into mainstream society without losing their religious and cultural identities.

A ceaseless proponent for these newest Americans, Browne has won numerous accolades from the New York City Council and top officials, and she serves on city, national, and international boards and advisory councils concerned with immigration. Following the dramatic events of Arab Spring, Browne was invited to Italy by the U.S. State Department to discuss best practices for the integration of new immigrants. Browne—an immigrant herself—eloquently stresses the need for local groups and agencies to reach out to new immigrants, to meet them as soon as they pass the border, and to help them establish themselves in their new country.

Emira was born in Palestine when it was still a British protectorate. Her father was a Christian Palestinian from a prominent Haifa family (the celebrated author and politician Emil Habibi was part of the extended family), her mother an Egyptian. After the UN voted in 1947 to partition Palestine into two states, the family moved to Cairo, where Emira grew up. She graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and returned to the Middle East, where she worked as a social worker for the Lutheran World Federation, helping refugees in East Jerusalem. Later she received an MA in social work from the American University in Beirut.

In the 1960s she moved again, this time to New York City, where she met and married a young lawyer, Thomas Browne. They worked abroad, had children, and eventually settled in Queens. In the 1980s Emira started up and ran a number of social services programs, focused primarily on youth and family problems and funded by the New York City Child Welfare Administration. At a meeting in the early 1990s, Commissioner Robert Little (the brother of Malcolm X who had grown up in a foster home) talked about various communities—including new Arab immigrants—that weren’t being properly served by big bureaucracies. His words struck a chord.

“I wanted to create a model program that would center around the family, actively working to keep it together,” Browne recalls. She approached Little with a proposal. “I’ll help you do this!” he said. The project stalled after the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993. Helping Arabs was anathema, but Browne refused to take “no” for an answer. Later that year she got a grant to start the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn. The center, an ecumenical effort, thrived—until 9/11. 

“It was the worst period of my life,” Browne states. She spent her days and nights helping immigrant clients deal with new regulations and find loved ones who had been detained; she tried to stop the deportations of Arab-Americans and others, and find escorts for children who were being bullied at school. Tensions mounted for her as a leader as well: “I was very exposed—a blonde, blue-eyed woman, a Christian, who didn’t cover her head.” Pressure mounted to put a Muslim man in charge, and the board removed her in 2006. She sued on grounds of employment discrimination based on race, age, and gender—and won.

Determined to continue her work with immigrants, Browne soon started CIANA, a social-services agency that would focus primarily on immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Today, CIANA serves more than 1,000 clients, including 323 families. The agency’s 16 staffers are fluent in 12 languages, including Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Nepali, and Urdu. This ability is particularly helpful in working with female immigrants, who often speak little or no English and typically arrive in the U.S. after their husbands have settled and found work.

While their children learn English in school, the women—many from traditional, rural societies, where they received little if any formal education—remain at home, isolated from the larger community. To address this, CIANA runs morning English courses at local grade schools so that mothers can take their children to school, work on their English, and enjoy the camaraderie of others.

CIANA, Browne explains, is pro-active, addressing difficulties before problems show up. She leverages the strengths of her staff by linking clients with several dozen nonprofit organizations that provide job skills, legal aid, citizenship classes, and other services. 

One important CIANA program aims to stop child neglect and abuse through intensive case management, counseling, and parenting classes, thus preventing the need to place the children in foster care. “Often the problems come about when neither the parents nor the children understand the system,” Browne notes.

The Ahmed family, Browne says, is typical: The couple—new immigrants from South Asia—moved legally to the U.S. with their three young children, seeking a better life. The father worked 16-hour days, while the mother stayed home to care for the children. All lived cramped in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. The parents watched helplessly as their children fell behind in classes and started skipping school.

Browne sympathetically describes the dilemma: “Like many new immigrant families, they found themselves isolated, unfamiliar with U.S. laws, unequipped to cope with mounting financial needs, and struggling with language barriers. The father took out his frustration and anxiety on the family, using corporal punishment to discipline the children, unaware that these traditional methods could result in their children being taken from them.”   

Suspecting domestic violence and child abuse, the school reported the parents to the State Central Registry. Police officers and child protective workers were soon knocking on the Ahmed’s door to investigate and remove the children to place them in foster care. But fortunately, the child protective worker, who knew of CIANA and the organization’s specialized services, referred the family to CIANA, which immediately took charge. 

“We counseled the parents to prevent further domestic violence and child abuse, enrolled them in parenting classes, informed them of their rights and responsibilities, and helped them understand the importance of communicating with the children’s schools and actively participating in their education,” explains Browne. CIANA also helped the parents enroll in English as a Second Language classes, secure appropriate employment, receive free legal assistance to complete their residency status, and get a housing subsidy.  

“As a nation, we can’t wait for second- and third-generation immigrants to integrate,” Browne emphasizes. “It’s a two way street: Immigrants need to understand the essential cultural aspects of American society, and we as a nation need to value these new citizens and their heritage.”

Suzanne Charlé has written for numerous publications, including The Nation, House Beautiful, and The New York Times, where she was a freelance assigning editor for the Magazine. She has co-authored many books including Indonesia in the Soeharto Years: Issues, Incidents and Illustrations