When I wandered into the International House of Charlotte across Central Avenue from Harris Teeter, I was just curious to see what the place was all about. For starters, I had no idea it was there, since the sign out front features the main tenant, Midwood International and Cultural Center.
I had no idea that the organization considered its neighborhood, Plaza Midwood, to be the international corridor of Charlotte. Why? The concentration of international small businesses and restaurants.
Johnelle Causwell, citizen diplomacy program director at International House, says they like to show off their neighborhood. That means picking venues like Bistro La Bon, Soul Gastrolounge, Pizza Peel and Mama’s Caribbean Grill & Bar for their events.
And they are backed by the nearly 75 members of the Young Professionals @ International House that participate in these events.
It makes sense, then, why this nonprofit’s tagline is: “Where Charlotte welcomes the world.”
I don’t really feel like I’m part of a whole wide world when I’m living my everyday existence in Charlotte. I feel like I’m just deeply embedded in the city — the uptown work crowd one moment, the yoga scene the next, my social scene after that.
But International House has been bringing fresh faces from the world into this little-city existence since 1981. It offers direct services to our international community, now more than 104,000 immigrants/foreign-born citizens strong.
Last year, the staff and volunteers helped just over 700 clients and received 3,000 requests. How:
– Through their immigration law clinic.
– Through their education program, which features ESL classes, one-on-one tutoring and citizenship classes.
– Through their citizen diplomacy program, which hosts people from around the world to get a taste of Charlotte (like at the aforementioned Plaza Midwood restaurants). Last year, future leaders from 37 different countries visited our city.
– Through cultural programs like book discussions, lectures and free language conversation hours touching on 12 languages from Farsi to Russian. (Fun fact: Aside from the Hispanic population in Charlotte, the Vietnamese population is the second-largest immigrant group. Next to Spanish, it’s the most-spoken language as well, according to Alma Hernandez, client services director.)
Of the hundreds of people coming through the doors, it doesn’t sound like most stumble blindly into the reception area like I did. Hernandez said clients generally find their way to International House, which has been at this location for three years, by word of mouth.
Otherwise, she said, “People don’t know that it’s here. People walk by, but they don’t know.”
But when they find their way, Hernandez suggests that immigrants may be pleasantly surprised by their immersion into Charlotte.
“One of the things that’s surprising for immigrants is how diverse it really is,” she said. “We have a lot of immigrants here in Charlotte. Especially if you come here. You can hang out here for half a day and easily meet people from all over the world just from the classes or conversation hours, or clinic.”
What if you want to feel more connected to our international scene? Join the YP group. Or become one of the 80 volunteers the organization sees every week for tutoring and other tasks.
Meet everyone you can.
Photos: Katie Toussaint