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I Belong works to help recent immigrants feel seen and heard without judgment

October 21, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose
“You are a brave person to be in a new country,” Cristina Zanoni said to encourage fellow immigrants.

Zanoni and Ben Goebel are active members of I Belong, which Goebel describes as a group to “empower immigrants and promote immigrant culture.“ Both Zanoni — originally from Brazil — and Goebel — originally from France — recognize the challenges of immigration through personal experience. What brought them together was realizing how similar the journey of immigration is for anyone coming to the US.

Both Zanoni and Goebel wanted to be active in the community, which led them both to participate in the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanian’s Immigrant Leadership Institute. While Zanoni was not in the same cohort of the institute as Goebel, the program was a strong catalyst in bringing the I Belong members together.

During the institute, participants had to complete a project with other institute members. Zanoni’s was to launch a networking event geared towards immigrants. She said she felt “wonderful to see an idea coming to life in a new country” and this moment inspired her to do more.

Goebel recounted that his inspiration to become involved in community-building came from being in a room of about 25 people representing over 15 countries and realizing that the barriers all immigrants faced were similar: language, social capital, and isolation, for example.

I Belong encourages immigrants and non-immigrants to participate in cross-cultural gatherings, like last year’s “One City, Many Cultures” events. Goebel specifically recalled an associated salsa class where participants were from Iraq, the U.S. and other countries, and it “was beautiful to see” their appreciation of the Caribbean Latinx musical and cultural contribution.

The group is currently hosting an arts contest, an open call to immigrant artists of all art levels in the Greater Philadelphia area, with the theme “Immigrant Heritage.” Categories for the contest include painting/drawing, digital art, and photography. The contest is one of the efforts I Belong has made to interact with its community virtually in response to the pandemic. Zanoni said she is excited to see the level of participation.

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“Art brings people together, and art is a way to deal with difficult times,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, I Belong made an effort to respond to the needs of its multi-immigrant community. One of the booklest the group has published, for example, is printed in five languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, English, and French.

Creating better cross-cultural work is “really linked to having more conversations and more situations where people from diverse backgrounds can work and interact together,” Goebel said. So the group’s members ask each other what they want to do through conversations and surveys. When someone has an idea, that person fills a sort of “manager” role for that project, and everyone helps make the project happen.

Zanoni said I Belong is very interactive, and people to openly share what they feel they can bring to the group. All of the encouragement helps people feel more comfortable, and be “seen, included, and recognized,” she said.

Goebel added that some members of the group creat their own self-guided conversation circles. Everyone practices expressing themselves in English, without the pressure that can be a part of conversing with non-immigrants.

“We all have an accent.” Goebel said, emphasizing that the space built this way enables people to participate without feeling judged. The point, according to Zanoni, isn’t on correcting the mistakes made in conversation, but enabling frequent and regular practice.

Zanoni has words of advice for immigrants who would hesitate to join even this judgment-free space. Be nice, she says — to yourself. Everyone has bad English days, she said, but “when you have a good day, try to do something extra, try to talk to someone.”

Goebel agreed:  “Don’t be hard on yourself. Sometimes say ‘Hey, how can I help?’ You don’t have to be the manager of the thing. You can start by something small, and after, see what happens.”


The open call for art submissions will will continue until Nov 11, 2020. Visit I Belong’s post on Instagram (@ibelongphilly) or the official website for more details.

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