Four years ago, Nicole Watts dreamed of ways she could help the refugee community in Syracuse’s North Side. Since then, she founded Hopeprint, moved into a home on Lilac Street and began strengthening relationships with community members. Together with key team supporters, Watts expanded the organization to include an array of weekly events and programming that benefits refugees who hail from all over the world.
This weekend, Watts and her team plan to host their second annual Hopeprint Gala to showcase the cultural diversity alive in the city. The event provides a place for the refugee groups to interact with the community at large and displays the Hopeprint community at work. The gala, designed for greater awareness about the refugee population and to bolster the organization’s operating costs, will be held at Eastern Hills Bible Church in Manlius, which donated space for the event.
Liz Ferree, one of the gala’s organizers and Hopeprint’s field director, described the theme this year as that of an international village. “It’s kind of like Epcot meets an international market,” she said. The entryway to the gala will hold appetizers, informational displays and raffle gift baskets. Several groups in the refugee community will staff rooms that showcase their cultures, including the Somali-Wazigua, Bhutanese, Iraqi and Central African communities.
The idea, Watts noted, is for refugees to be front and center during the evening. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show us their culture and to give to our community from a place that could be such a rich asset to our community,” she said.
Watts, 30, began the not-for-profit organization as a way to befriend the diverse populations that call the North Side home; she felt that by moving into the neighborhood they would embrace her more readily. In October 2010 she and four other team members, including Ferree, rented a house on Lilac Street, home base for most of their programming. The team hosted dinners and took gradual steps to weave their way into the community.
Hopeprint volunteers struggled at first to show the refugees how they were different from other local aid organizations. “We weren’t there to step on their toes, but so often I think they felt that,” Ferree said. Ferree previously worked at Catholic Charities to help refugees locate jobs, prepare for interviews and build resumes. She now is a full-time paid staff member at Hopeprint and applies her previous experience to current refugees’ job searches.
The team worked to establish bonds with the people they met in the neighborhood, and created programs that would benefit the residents in tangible ways. At the core is a Tuesday night conversation group during which a Hopeprint member leads a discussion about various topics that help the participants adjust to American culture. The discussions focus on topics about family to boost English vocabulary, or the structure of American government to prepare the refugees for citizenship applications. Other programs take place throughout the week and include children’s programs, a boys’ mentorship program, a Girl Scout troop and English-language tutoring.
For Ferree, these initiatives act on real needs she sees in the community. Both she and Watts look forward to expanding aspects of leadership development within the program so that the refugees can begin to establish a more influential presence. “It’s identifying the people who have really risen to the top as far as their desire and passion to lead their own community,” Watts said. She added that those steps include character development as well as working toward increased literacy.
Each month Watts meets with refugees who are influential in their communities and who have sought out Hopeprint for assistance. In an open forum, she listens to concerns the refugees have and discusses new plans or initiatives the organization would like to tackle. She also gauges community interest and the level of involvement the refugees would like to have in programming.
Watts said the gala allows people who might be unsure about venturing to the North Side to see it in microcosm on Saturday. “Come with a willingness to learn,” she said. “The willingness to experience the unfamiliar—a new culture, a new people—and just be ready for a really good time too.” This year Watts and Ferree estimate that at least 400 guests will attend the event; last year’s event attracted 350. American-style semiformal attire is expected, although the refugees plan to wear culturally traditional garb, such as saris from the Bhutanese participants, original African prints and colorful hijabs from the Somalians.
“The refugee population brings amazing gifts,” Ferree said. “They come with so many skills, so much talent, with a spirit of entrepreneurship.”
The gala will be held Saturday, Feb. 9, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Eastern Hills Bible Church, 8277 Cazenovia Road, Manlius. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased online at hopeprint.eventbrite.com. Special student pricing is available. For more information, visit blog.hopeprint.org.