Chattanooga International Welcome Fair greets city's new residents

Chattanooga International Welcome Fair greets city's new residents

May 25th, 2012 by Perla Trevizo in News

Dag Pontvik, left, interprets in Spanish for Cuban immigrants Yusnaimy Jorge Soca, center, and Dariel Ferret, 10, Thursday at the annual International Welcome Fair.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Jinan and Abdulwahab Al-Abid walked from table to table inside the gym at Battle Academy in the Southside.

At one table they learned about free English classes the Hamilton County Baptist Association offers. Next, about Sister Cities, housing, transportation and tourism -- an area that particularly interested them as they got information about Rock City and the Tennessee Aquarium and even got their first chocolate MoonPie.

The Al-Abids were among dozens of new residents from other lands who attended the third annual Hands Across Chattanooga International Welcome Fair, where 20 city agencies, private business and organizations that work with immigrants were available to answer any question.

The fair serves two purposes, said Beverly Cosley, director of the city's Office of Multicultural Affairs, which sponsors the event.

"It's an opportunity to acquaint new residents to services we have in our area," she said.

But it's also a way to "learn from each other and understand and respect our differences," she added.

Attendees were helped by interpreters, each wearing a sticker with "Hello, I speak ...," followed by the language written in English and Arabic, Bengali, Spanish, or any of the other eight languages represented.

Language is one of the main barriers for many newcomers, said Marisol Jimenez, with La Paz Chattanooga and St. Andrews Center, two organizations that work with the immigrant community.

"They may not always have access to interpreters so this type of fair becomes very important," she said.

More than 90 languages are spoken in Hamilton County, according to Hamilton County Schools data.

The Al-Abids are Iraqi refugees who arrived five weeks ago. They had to flee their country because Abdulwahab worked with the U.S. military in a human resources capacity, he said through an interpreter. It wasn't safe for them anymore.

Even though they resettled with the help of the local Bridge Refugee and Sponsorship Services, they said they still have much more to learn.

Figuring out the transportation system, what items to buy at the grocery store or even how to pay their bills has been a challenge, they said through an interpreter, but the Welcome Fair is a good start.

Chattanooga has become a much more international city, said Chattanooga City Mayor Ron Littlefield.

"Something like this introduces Chattanooga to the world and the world to Chattanooga," he said. "I would like to see it become so large that we have to move it to the [Chattanooga Convention and] trade center."

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