The Welcome Project – Supporting the Needs of Immigrants

The mid-1980s was a period of great influx in the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants to America. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 sparked a migration from that country to the United States. The stream of immigrants would grow through the next decade as refugees escaped war in El Salvador and economic upheaval in Haiti. One of the places these immigrants landed was a low-income housing development in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts. The community responded by seeking out ways to welcome the new neighbors and to protect them from additional violence and discrimination. The result was The Welcome Project, a community collective designed to support the needs of immigrants co-founded by the Associate Dean of the Simmons School of Social Work, Suzanne Sankar.

The History of The Welcome Project

At the time, the families in the Mystic Public Housing Development, where Sankar worked as the director of a mental health clinic, were primarily white. Worldwide turmoil resulted in families from South America, Haiti, and Vietnam relocating to Somerville.

As the immigrants arrived, the historically white community became home to people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. According to Sankar, “When these immigrants were moving in, there were some troubling incidents of violence and harassment directed toward the new residents.” Sankar, a mental health practitioner, decided to step in so that the new residents wouldn’t have to fear for their safety in the housing development — especially after they had fled violence in their home countries and experienced significant trauma to get to the United States.

“We all felt that there was a wonderful opportunity to have a rich, vibrant, multicultural community where people would be celebrated for their differences,” said Sankar. To make this opportunity a reality, Sankar worked alongside other families from the housing development, doctors and nurses from the health center, representatives from the housing authority, the mayor’s office, and clergy to create The Welcome Project in 1987.

Programs and Services

Since its creation, The Welcome Project has expanded to serve the immigrant community across the entire city of Somerville, while still maintaining close ties to the Mystic Public Housing Development. Today, The Welcome Project offers programs and services designed to improve leadership skills, assist with personal development, provide access to employment and education, help residents learn English and adapt to a new culture, and be active in civic life.

Its Youth Aspirations programs focus on helping young people reach their potential through opportunities like the Liaison Interpreter Program of Somerville (LIPS). This program trains bilingual youth to serve as interpreters for those in their community who are not English speakers. Young people in this program are learning not only valuable interpretation skills, but also the importance of civic engagement by providing their services at city hall meetings and other community events. “In other circumstances, they probably wouldn’t have been to any of these meetings. And kids who are in that program have gone on to not only attend college, but have also been hired as translators at community agencies,” Sankar said.

Additionally, the project’s Adult Education and Leadership programs focus on adults in the community who might need assistance adjusting to a home in a new country. Offerings include English classes, parenting advice, yoga classes, and more. 

Building Community

The Welcome Project provides benefits for both immigrants and Somerville natives. Somerville residents have come to embrace the diversity of their town. The integration of immigrants as a result of The Welcome Project has helped create a vibrant sense of community. 

The Welcome Project helps ensure that immigrants are not pushed to the margins but included in all aspects of civic life. “As a result of many of our efforts, immigrants really feel like integrated members of the community,” Sankar said. Giving immigrants access to the tools they need to succeed, like education, empowers them to find their own unique role in their new community.

If you would like to learn more about Suzanne Sankar and her other professional accomplishments, please visit her faculty biography page.


Image: Jaap Joris, used under CC BY / Cropped from original.