Lily Chavez's parents moved from Mexico to Winnebago County before she was born. Chavez shared the story of her family's immigration at a recent panel in Rockford hosted by Engaging Lent. The forum aimed to dispel myths and address immigration fears stoked nationally and reflected locally.
"People need to realize that they're not talking about numbers. They're not talking about statistics," she said. "They're talking about people."
The high schooler said she's been called out for speaking Spanish in public. Chavez says there's a need for more candid conversations about immigration in Rockford.
"One of the things that we've been improving on lately, but it's never a bad thing to have more of is, I guess, a general curiosity of the other side of things and of how other people experience it," Chavez said. "So I guess that would generate more acceptance and understanding within the community."
Ola Abdulrazzak moved to Winnebago County with her family two years ago after leaving Syria because of the war. She shared her story about settling in Rockford and coping with sometimes negative attitudes toward immigrants.
"We have more similarities to share more than we have differences," she said.
She studies science now at Rock Valley College. Abdulrazzak said it's appreciated when people lend a hand to help others do everyday things like reading mail and getting a hang of languages. She said she'd like to see more intentional interaction between immigrants and their new communities.
"What I have seen [is that] there is [not a lot of events] that let them, like the immigrants, interact with the community so if we can let more of these events spread around the Rockford city where we could know some immigrants and hear from their stories," she said.
The panel included Rockford-based immigration lawyers Linda Zuba and Sara Dady.
Zuba, an immigrant from Colombia, works periodically with a group called Al Otro Lado in Tijuana. She spoke at the panel about the right to seek asylum, something many people she works with at the southern border are applying for.
"[Asylum seekers are] being criminalized, they're vilified, they're being called terrorists. That's not what I have seen," Zuba said. "And even though there may be some criminals out there, the vast majority are not, and they have a legal right to seek asylum."
Dady said she's been working in immigration law for around 14 years and has seen an increase of insecurities in both the immigrant and non-immigrant communities.
"There is area for agreement. There are points that we agree on. Nobody wants to have undocumented people in the United States. Nobody wants unsecure borders. It's absolutely reasonable that we know who is coming into the United States. But we can't even start talking about solutions to those issues until we start listening to each other and we work from the same set of facts," said Dady.
Jim Andrews is a project lead for Engaging Lent. The group works in partnership with Rockford Urban Ministries and the Catholic Sinsinawa Dominicans.
"The topic tonight, which is about fear mongering among immigrants, is just something that's really been brewing over the last couple of years," Andrews said. "And it seemed to us that we weren't really hearing the stories of local immigrants and so that's what tonight is really all about."
Engaging Lent hopes to make a space for non-religious people to reflect on themselves and their community during the Lenten season. Their next event is March 26 at Grace United Church in Rockford.