International Intern Nima Omar in Athens Square. Astoria, NY. Photo: Maria Eliades
CIANA’s interns and volunteers are a talented group, often with their own personal stories of immigration. Nima Omar is no exception to that rule. Omar came to Denmark when she was two months old, but she was born in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian mother and a Somali father. The social work intern came to the U.S. to fulfill her goal of doing an internship abroad as a part of her international social work degree in Copenhagen at University College Copenhagen. Maria Eliades, CIANA’s Director of Development and Communications, chats with Omar about how she found CIANA, her work at the organization, and differences between immigration policies in Denmark and the U.S.
Maria Eliades: Did you come into the United States with assumptions about what you’d find in terms of the ways non-profits run and the political system?
Nima Omar: In Denmark, especially if you want to be a social worker, most of the job opportunities are at governmental institutions. This may not give social worker that much freedom because at governmental institutions you have to follow the guidelines from above, from the government, which can put you in ethical dilemmas, especially with the political situation in Denmark. I think it’s different here in the U.S because there are more NGOs and you can really find an organization in line with your values.
ME: You started off your internship in Albany. I’m sure most of our readers are wondering, ‘How did you find this position here? How did you end up in Albany? Why did you decide then to transfer to New York and how did you find CIANA?’
NO: It’s amazing what you can do with the internet. I found the organization in Albany through a Google search, with other organizations that serve immigrants and refugees on Indeed. There were a lot of opportunities. I enjoyed working at the organization in Albany, but I didn’t feel like I was learning the things I wanted in the social work field. Since I’d had experience working with immigrants and refugees in Albany, I wanted to try to work with a similar population in New York City.
I found CIANA through Facebook. I was impressed by how active CIANA’s social media was. I emailed Emira, CIANA’s Executive Director, and she responded very quickly. I thought that was a good sign.
But the social media was definitely one of the first things that made me think I wanted to apply to CIANA. I shared the social media accounts with my family, friends and my professor and they all said it seemed like a good organization.
ME: What are the differences you saw in the immigrant populations in Albany versus New York City?
NO: From what I noticed in Albany there were more refugees, especially from Sudan, Bangladesh and Syria, due to the lower cost of living. In New York City there are more immigrants from various countries.
ME: What are the differences you see in immigrant populations in New York City versus Denmark?
NO: In Denmark the population is less diverse compared to the U.S., especially to here in New York City, where it’s very multicultural and multiethnic. Of course, in Denmark we have different cultures, but I think especially right now, the immigration policy is geared towards assimilation, so people expect that you adopt Danish culture. Here in the U.S. I find it that it seems more like a strength to keep your culture, and I like that.
In the integration process, there are so many opinions about how you integrate people into the new country, which reminded me of an experience I had in a workplace in a small town in Denmark where everyone knew each other. I was having lunch with some of my colleagues, and we were talking about family backgrounds.
One of my colleagues said in front of everyone, ‘Oh so Nima, where do you live? Did you grow up in the town?’
I said, ‘Yeah, with my family. And I grew up here.’
‘Oh okay, but are you adopted?’
‘No. Why? Do you think I’m adopted?’
She said, ‘Oh, it’s because you speak Danish so well.’
That story has stuck with me since then because it really unveils the stereotypes people have and how integration is in Denmark.
ME: What did that reveal to you about integration and assimilation?
NO: It somehow made me think, because I speak Danish well, I may act in some ways that my colleague understood were part of Danish culture and made me feel that in Denmark there are two categories. I either had to fit in entirely with what people considered ‘Danish’ or entirely what they consider to be an ‘immigrant.’ I couldn’t be Danish with an immigrant background. That incident made me really reflect on what integration means in Denmark.
ME: Do you feel like you have the space to have another culture in Denmark?
NO: I think especially in Denmark now, and I think especially when I was growing up that there was a bigger focus on assimilation rather than integrating while being proud of your culture. When I came here, it opened my eyes. For example, at CIANA, it seems like you really value integration but I also see that it’s a strength that all the clients have different cultural backgrounds. CIANA isn’t asking them to forget their home country or their language. It’s really celebrated.
ME: How do you think working at CIANA has helped you in achieving any career goals that you have or as part of your education?
NO: I really found out that I want to work for non-profits. In Denmark I was asking myself, ‘Do I want to work in a governmental institution where I don’t agree with the policy affecting immigrants and refugees?’ It really opened my eyes that there really are other opportunities out there, especially at NGOs in the U.S.
ME: What’s your favorite part about interning at CIANA?
NO: The clients. [Nima smiles.] Even though I feel like I’m not doing much, they’re really, really grateful. I feel like I’m somehow making a difference, even though I know it’s not a big difference.
I also like that I don’t have a strict role in this organization. I can get involved in a lot of departments and take the lead on projects, like the Know Your Rights Workshops that educate immigrants and refugees about what to do if they are being approached by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). I helped coordinate outreach and used my creative skills to design a flyer for that.
I also like that the organization is small and community-based, so we have this relationship with the clients. I also noticed that some of the clients have been here at CIANA for several years now, so I like that the organization is very close to them.
There was also a client we were helping who applied for asylum. The case has been going on for five years, but she hasn’t received any indication that her case is being looked at by the government. Kim, CIANA’s case manager, and I went to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office to speed up the process, because this green card case after such a long time is urgent. We went there to advocate for her. It was a nice experience to see Kim advocating for this client, and it was overall a really nice experience to see how the political system works in the U.S. That experience confirmed for me that what I really want as a career is to advocate for immigrant and refugee populations.