Member Spotlight: Alain Mentha, Executive Director, Welcome Home Jersey City

 

“In New Jersey, we have a richer diversity of immigrant communities than in most states…New Jersey can be a leader in just immigration policy, and it starts with prioritizing that immigrants live thriving lives in our state.”

-Alain Mentha, Executive Director, Welcome Home Jersey City

 

Alain's background ranges from philosophy to the music business and academic book publishing industry, but it was the 2016 election that pushed Alain to become more mindful about various immigration issues, especially at the local level. “There has always been this nativist, xenophobic and demogogic discourse happening in this country, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it was truly in my face.  After the election, my wife and I were stunned. I knew I couldn’t spend the next four years just shouting at the television screen while people's lives were being impacted. We decided we would begin volunteering with a resettlement agency.”

 

Alain’s work with the resettlement agency included folding bed sheets, setting up apartments for refugee families, and serving as an English Language teacher. One experience resonated with Alain. “I was helping set up an apartment for a refugee family that had arrived from Eritrea. It was a couple and their six year old child. My daughter was six years old, too, and was volunteering with me. We decided to personally meet the family for some coffee. While we couldn’t exactly communicate due to language barriers, our children had no problem playing together. Our families got to know each other and learned how to communicate as best we could. Since that experience, I have never looked back.”

 

Prior to 2018, many individuals Welcome Home Jersey City (WHJC) served were refugees. That all changed when the resettlement program in Jersey City was suspended, leading the organization to serve asylum seekers, asylees and undocumented immigrants. Alain shares what brought the organization to the NJ Alliance for Immigrant Justice (NJAIJ). “Because of our shift in the population we started serving, I became drawn to NJAIJ. I wanted to learn more about immigration policy and the lives of undocumented immigrants in New Jersey. I wanted to understand the programs and services that undocumented immigrants were entitled to, the barriers they were facing, and how WHJC could best serve this population locally.”

 

WHJC serves refugees and asylum seekers from across the world. “Many people we have met through WHJC are from the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. We have always supported Afghan SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) holders. In 2018, as we started working with more asylum seekers, we began meeting people from West Africa. They were being released from immigrant detention centers in New Jersey. As a result, our work started converging with anti-detention and immigrant justice organizations.”

 

WHJC work has evolved over time, from first helping set up housing for refugees, then connecting the community to education and employment opportunities. Today, WHJC is tapping into advocacy issues impacting the communities they serve. “WHJC is advocating for the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would benefit Afghan parolees. Currently, parolees do not have a pathway to citizenship, unlike refugees or SIV holders. Humanitarian parole only lasts a year. Once that year is up, they have to apply for asylum, which requires people to undergo a repetitive process. The Afghan Adjustment Act would put all Afghan parolees on a pathway to citizenship. We also advocate for the release of community members held in detention centers into the care of their community and community organizations, rather than being shipped off to a detention center in another state. We call for releases not transfers, just as other organizations have been amplifying across the state.”

Outside of their advocacy efforts, one of WHJC’s popular programs is Fun Club. “Every week, WHJC convenes the community for our Fun Club program. We help children with their homework and get them exposed to different activities, like dance and crafts. Simultaneously, we help parents on specific projects, like English classes for example. We then eat together in community. To be honest, I think we are more known for pizza than anything else!”

Alain has met a multitude of people and has had the opportunity to hear their stories. One story in particular resonated with Alain. “In 2019, WHJC held an event to commemorate World Refugee Day. At the end of our program, a refugee woman spoke up to tell her story. She had migrated from Syria to Thailand, where she was told that she could make her way to the United States. With her was her husband and her four children. News came that her two adult children would have to apply for refugee status separately. She had to make a decision: head to America with only her two youngest and her husband? Or wait, so that her family stays united, but with no guarantee that they will make it to the U.S.? She had to make the hard decision to leave behind her two adult kids. Life for the two adult children was hard in Thailand. They didn’t have legal working status in Thailand, which led them to be detained and imprisoned.” Alain shared that once the woman finished her story and asked for help in reuniting her family, a man in the audience spoke up. This man turned out to be related to the former chief of police in Bangkok, Thailand. He was able to contact the former chief of police and get the children released from jail. Alain reflects on this experience.This story is not just a wild coincidence. It shows the difficult decisions and the hard journeys that people must take as refugees, as well as the power that advocacy and speaking up for change has.”

To Alain, achieving policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants is important. According to Alain, “immigrants bring so much value and richness to this country. Immigrants also bring a spirit of entrepreneurship, which is one of our main drivers in our economy and in our communities. America has always been a country of change and reinvention, which immigrants amplify. In New Jersey, we have a richer diversity of immigrant communities than in most states. Our State Legislature and Governor have a chance to support immigrants by passing laws that empower our communities and keep them together. New Jersey can be a leader in just immigration policy, and it starts with prioritizing that immigrants live thriving lives in our state.”

As the holidays approach us, Alain asks readers to broaden their understanding of home and family. “At WHJC we try to broaden the meaning of family and home to be more than just the people and place you return to at night. Family and home is our community that makes us feel safe. What can we bring to our community to ensure that we all feel safe? We have the responsibility of creating that sense of home and family for 85,000 Afghan refugees arriving in the United States. I can see Jersey City being home to dozens, even hundreds, of newly arrived Afghan refugees. And WHJC will be here to support them.”

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Member Spotlight on Edgar Aquino-Huerta, Farmworker Organizer, CATA - The Farmworker Support Committee

“Everything that people eat everyday, especially on Thanksgiving, is picked by a farmworker. Everything is produced by an agricultural worker. Everything is picked by essential hands that are not paid any attention to. Essential hands that have been through severe cuts, coldness, pesticide poisoning and much more. Hands that are not valued, but should be since they feed everyone.” -- Edgar Aquino-Huerta, Farmworker Organizer, CATA

 

Edgar was born in Puebla, Mexico, then migrated to the United States at a very young age. Edgar became an advocate a few years ago. He saw how his immigrant community was excluded from public programs and the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on his community. He saw the work CATA was doing in the community and was very impressed. He eventually joined CATA: “CATA does a lot of things. We do outreach on the farms to do pesticide trainings, facilitate health and safety trainings with the farmworkers so that they can navigate their work spaces, and outreach for the new driver’s licenses law. Not only do we try to build knowledge among the farmworkers, we also get them involved in advocacy efforts, like raising the minimum wage. Many people make below the minimum wage, even after working on the farms for over 20 years. We fight with them to improve their lives.”

 

For the past five months, Edgar has worked with community members to get them ready to apply for the driver’s licenses law. Edgar has been able to assist 45 community members start their driver’s license process in New Jersey since May, securing 11 of those members with their actual license: “I get calls sometimes from community members saying, ‘Hey, I got my license in the mail! Thank you so much’. I live for those moments. It’s another weight taken off their shoulders because they can drive with a little less fear on the road”. Edgar also shared that the most important thing about the work he does with CATA is building the confidence amongst farmworkers: “I do not come into their spaces and act as if I’m the professional. I get to know them as people. I learn about their experiences and what moves them. I try to console them when they are fearful about their situations. I try to give them animo, courage, to move forward because there are people advocating for them”

 

Many of the community members that Edgar works with are Mexican immigrants and Central American immigrants who work in the agricultural sector of south Jersey with certain lived experiences: “Many community members I work with do not have any form of documentation. This prevents them from applying for programs, like driver's licenses. I see that community members have been discouraged. They fear losing their jobs, or getting hurt on the job. But I also see people who fight for better. I know one community member who advocated for the driver’s licenses law since the very beginning. Today, he has his license and gets people involved in organizing campaigns.”

 

Edgar says that CATA is involved in various campaigns: “CATA works with the Let's Drive NJ/Driver’s Licenses for All campaign to ensure all community members, regardless of immigration status, have access to driver’s licenses. CATA also works with the Recovery For All coalition to advocate for the Excluded New Jerseyans Fund (ENJF). We also have community gardens and have weekly market days where community members can get fresh produce. CATA has three offices in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Each office does different things, but very important work.”

 

Edgar says that there are many ways for people to support CATA’s work: “People can visit the website to learn more about our initiatives. It would be very helpful if people share our Facebook updates, and join our community meetings every month to update the community with news that support immigrants. Also, any information that would be helpful to our community, please share! The more we educate the community, the better.”

 

One day, Edgar searched up his last name and found millions of google searches on Dolores Huerta. As he researched her, he found out how her advocacy efforts to better the lives and working conditions of farmworkers: “Sometimes I tell people that Dolores Huerta is my grandmother since we have the same last name. I like to believe we are related in some way. I didn’t know people like her existed, and definitely didn’t know I would do similar work as her in the future as a farmworker’s organizer. I would think about her all the time when I used to work the fields in the summer. I would stand up to oppressive bosses and stand up for my fellow workers because I knew that Dolores Huerta would do the same. ”

 

Thanksgiving is around the corner, and often Farmworkers and other agricultural workers are not acknowledged in the food system. One thing that Edgar would like people to know about the lives of farmworkers, is that “everything that people eat everyday, especially on Thanksgiving, is picked by a farmworker. Everything is produced by an agricultural worker. Everything is picked by essential hands that are not paid any attention to. Essential hands that have been through severe cuts, coldness, pesticide poisoning and much more. Hands that are not valued, but should be since they feed everyone.”

 

Edgar shares what brings him joy, and how he wishes to use his talents to further the farmworker rights movement: “I have been writing my entire life. I like to write about the world, but in a creative way so that people can picture it in their heads. I am also a videographer. I come from a low-income family, so we didn’t have money to buy cameras as a kid. When I got my first camera in seventh grade, I would direct videos with my cousins and upload them to YouTube. I eventually worked on PSA’s for my high school, and my work has developed greatly. I now want to document the lives of farm workers by creating cinematic testimonials from our community members. I want to capture how farmworkers feel, and what their experiences are like”

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Member Spotlight on Helen Zamora-Bustos, Organizer with Wind of the Spirit

“Black Latinos are only depicted in sports, but we are more than just athletes. We are activists, authors, actors/actresses, teachers, inventors. More light needs to be shed on Black Latinos and what we have contributed to Latin America and the world.”

Helen Zamora-Bustos,

Community Organizer, Wind of the Spirit

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Member Spotlight on Serges Demefack with AFSC-IRP

“It matters less where you are born and more what we carry with us, how we see our role as Black people to shape our own future and our own path. To be self-determined.”

Serges Demefack, End Detention and Deportation Project Coordinator, American Friends Service Committee - Immigrants Rights Project 

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Member Spotlight on Teresa Vivar, Founder and Director of Lazos America Unida

Image of Teresa with long light blue dyed hair in and outdoor setting. She has a long white dress on with red traditional Mexican embroidery. She is leaning bench smiling looking straight ahead with art work of Frida Khalo face behind her. There are tree in the background and wooden planked floor where she is standing barefoot.

"As an Indigenous woman, I believe that we need to learn from the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. We must learn from their bravery and their creativity in keeping their traditions alive, despite colonization. We need to learn how to find ways to collaborate because we came from the roots of resilient people with a very strong mindset..." Teresa Vivar, Founder and Director of Lazos America Unida

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Member Spotlight on Nate Phillips, LALDEF Adult Education Programs Coordinator

We spoke to Nate Philips, Adult Education Programs Coordinator at member organization LALDEFa grassroots nonprofit organization formed to defend the civil rights of Latin Americans and facilitate their access to health care and education, as well as to advance cross-cultural understanding in the Mercer County area.

We asked Nate what he loves about his work. Here is what he shared,

“Independence day makes me think of the promise of the United States: liberty and justice for all. We have this ideal that the country has been chasing for hundreds of years… If the United States celebrates this aspiration, but people are fighting everyday for their basic rights, how can this make any sense?” — Nate Philips, Adult Education Programs Coordinator, LALDEF - The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.

 

Nate on why it is important for LALDEF to support achieving policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants...

The Alliance’s mission is very similar to LALDEF’s, which is to promote the rights of all immigrants. LALDEF focuses on the Latin American community in the Mercer County area facilitating access to health care, education and legal representation; advocate for the integration of immigrants; and foster intercultural communication to strengthen our communities). Just as the Alliance, LALDEF wishes to see immigrant communities thrive - not just be integrated, but really thrive, which can happen if policies promote economic, political and social prosperity for immigrants.

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Member Spotlight on Tiara Moultrie, Policy Associate at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice

This month we highlight Tiara Moultrie, Policy Associate at our member organization NJ Institute for Social Justice. The Institute is leading the campaign calling on the New Jersey legislature to create a Reparations Taskforce.  Learn more on how to support the upcoming Juneteenth #SayTheWord: Reparations - March and Rally Here.

“Social justice requires action, it's a process we have to actively engage in whether through reflection and education or direct service. At a base level, the goal of those actions is to bring about a more just, healthy, and equitable world where no one is deprived of opportunity…” - Tiara Moultrie

About the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice...

Through racial and social justice advocacy the Institute seeks to empower people of color by building reparative systems that create wealth, transform justice, and harness democratic power—from the ground up—in New Jersey. We provide an independent voice for change which is necessary to create just, vibrant, healthy, and inclusive urban communities. Our advocacy is particularly important during this moment of recovery and repair because it addresses persistent inequality in the state and helps to chart a path forward. As we look toward a new normal the time for structural reform and repair is now.

Importance of Black and Brown solidarity... 

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Ruthie Arroyo, Community Organizer with Migrante-New Jersey

Ruthie Arroyo (right) celebrating the release of a community member from Elizabeth Detention Center (left).

 Ruthie Shares, “I asked myself, why am I here? and who am I as a Filipino woman in Jersey City?... I realized there were socio-political and economic factors that force migration. From there, it moved beyond ‘this is my story’ to ‘this is my people’s story’.”

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Abire Sabbagh, Community Engagement Coordinator with Palestinian American Community Center (PACC)

“It’s the people. The ones that are physically, mentally and emotionally resisting oppression. They inspire me.”

-Abire Sabbagh

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Member Spotlight on S. Nadia Hussain, BAWDI Co-Founder

 

S. Nadia Hussain (center), with her son (front), speaks at the Excluded Women's March on March 7, 2021.

If there is access and opportunity, people can and will rise…But it shouldn't take an exceptional individual to be able to rise up from difficult circumstances. Access and opportunity must be made available to everyone so that we can all rise up from difficult circumstances.”

-S. Nadia Hussain

 

We had the marvelous opportunity to speak with S. Nadia Hussain, co-founder of the BAWDI Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative and member of the New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice, about her work as a leader and Women’s History Month.

Connect with BAWDI and learn how to support here.

The BAWDI Bangladeshi American Women’s Development Initiative (BAWDI) seeks to promote, support, and address the unmet needs of Bangladeshi women and children in the Paterson community and throughout New Jersey through grassroots organizing, connection to services, advocacy, disseminating information, and educating community members on social issues, and cultivating a safe space for sisterhood.

BAWDI has been a member of the New Jersey Alliance For Immigrant Justice (Alliance) since 2018. The organization joined the coalition to uplift the immigrant rights movement in New Jersey and help support Bangladeshi immigrants across the state.

BAWDI is a dynamic organization composed of a volunteer executive board of women from the community dedicated to justice and love for the people. The organization connects community members to resources and information and recently fundraised over $8,000 to help meet the community’s immediate needs during the Covid19 pandemic. 


On who she is and what BAWDI stands for...

“I am an activist. I am a long-time activist and organizer. I am a co-founder of the Bangladeshi American Women’s Development initiative, BAWDI for short, an organization that supports, uplifts, organizes, and connects the Bangladeshi-American community to resources. We work to uplift Bangladeshi women and girls in New Jersey. We are based out of Paterson, meaning that much of our work is based in Passaic County, but we do work across the state as well.”

“We have been around for about five years now. What is very impressive about us is that we are a volunteer-run organization. Our board members are from the community. Some of us grew up in Paterson; others have lived in the community at some point. All of us are women who come from or have lived in the Bangladeshi-American community in or around the Paterson area - so we are part of the community we serve. A lot of our work is as grassroots as you can get.”

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