4th Annual Welcome Awards Ceremony Celebrates What Makes America Great

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By David Cisneros.

State, national, and international news media have brought us a daily barrage of tragic or infuriating news stories. And national rhetoric increasingly features voices of nativism, racism, and hatred. In the face of all of this, it is easy to lose focus on the unsung hard work done by ordinary people to combat hate and make our nation and our community more just and welcoming. Thankfully, the 4th Annual Welcome Awards Ceremony and Celebration, held on Saturday, September 23 at the Muslim American Society Center in Urbana, was a welcome reminder of the many efforts within our own community to make Champaign-Urbana a more welcoming and diverse place. It was a testament to the fact that it is our diversity, hospitality, kindness, and commitment to justice that make America great.

The Annual Welcome Awards were a part of 2017 Welcoming Week, a national week of events that brought together immigrants and U.S.-born residents in a spirit of better understanding and unity. The Awards Ceremony, the culmination of Welcome Week, was co-sponsored by the Cities of Champaign and Urbana, the CU Immigration Forum, the Muslim American Society of Urbana-Champaign, and the Urbana Free Library. Four individuals and two local organizations were honored for their contributions to creating a welcoming Champaign-Urbana.

Nancy M. Ramirez Blancas, a U of I student at the forefront of activism around issues such as the Student ACCESS Bill (allowing financial aid for undocumented students) and support for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students like herself, was awarded the Student Leadership Award. Karyl Wackerlin, a local professional photographer who uses her camera to find and spread joy across the globe during mission trips, was awarded the Human Rights Award for work creating, organizing, and documenting (in word and film) mission trips to the God’s Littlest Angels orphanage in Haiti. Samuel Smith received the Humanitarian Relief Award for his leadership in the building of a clean water well in the Koyagbema community of Kenama, Sierra Leone, near a school operated by the Sierra Leone YMCA. Finally, the Distinguished Leadership Service Award went to Charles Larenas for over a decade of work as director of the Summer Migrant Education Program, a summer educational program at Parkland that provides high-quality and comprehensive educational programs for migrant children.

In addition to the individuals honored, two local organizations also received a Community Impact Award. The Immigration Project, a nonprofit organization providing immigration legal assistance to the 100,000 immigrants residing in Central and Southern Illinois, was honored for its efforts to help the immigrant community. The Education Justice Project (EJP), a college-in-prison program, was also honored for addressing the increasing threats facing immigrants today under the new administration of the United States through its Ripple Effect program, helping incarcerated people facing immigration and those who get deported.

Although the awards were the centerpiece of the afternoon, those in attendance were also treated to international food, music, and dancing. Refreshments were provided by local businesses Rick’s Bakery, the Red Herring Restaurant, and Ortelia’s Healthy Choices Catering. Urbana Free Library sponsored children’s activities, and the Angola Capoeira Center treated those in attendance to a demonstration of the Afro-Brazilian art form capoeira, a hybrid of dance and martial arts. In the spirit of celebrating international connections in Champaign-Urbana, Champaign Mayor Deborah Feinen and City Council Member Beck also honored a visiting Haitian delegation from Kenscoff, Haiti by giving them a key to the city of Champaign.

The Welcome Awards provided an opportunity to celebrate efforts to make Champaign-Urbana a welcoming place, and, just as important, it recognized the contributions of immigrants, refugees, and international residents to our community. Each of these winners showed the impact one individual can make toward a better and more just community. In light of so much national news that highlights divisions, the Welcome Awards served to remind us all of the hard work done everyday in our community to bring people together. In spite of rhetoric that maligns immigrants and refugees, the event honored the positive and necessary contributions of immigrants to our community and the nation. As Susan Ogwal, one of the afternoon’s emcees stated at the close of the ceremony, the 4th Annual Welcome Awards Ceremony and Celebration reminded us all that hospitality, kindness, and diversity of voices – “this is what makes this country great.”


Bio: David has lived in Champaign since 2013. He writes about immigration issues and has been involved with various community groups, including the CU Immigration Forum, CU SURJ, and Sanctuary For the People.

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