Mary Danner: Immigrant Histories and the Refugee Center (Sp 20)

Mary’s Grandfather, mother and mother’s twin at family home in Ireland

My mother is one of the many immigrants to have made their home in Champaign-Urbana, and knowing where you came from has always been an important landmark for my family. My mother, as part of the post-war Irish diaspora, came to America on one of the last boats through Ellis Island. This has been a source of great pride but also sorrow for my mother. I was raised on stories of her time both in rural Ireland and in Chicago–how as a toddler, never having seen so many people, cars, and lights, she broke away from my grandparents and ran across Time Square. These personal histories are integral to me and my worldview and, as I grew up, easily transformed into a broader love of and dedication to history.

In 2018, I began working for the Refugee Center as their administrative assistant.  As a history undergrad participating in the Public History Internship Program and a member of the Refugee Center staff has offered me a unique opportunity. Looking at the history and workings of a local nonprofit from the inside, and examining how public history intersects with other public services has been eye opening. Public history has an important role to play beyond the walls of museums and archives. My original project, to research and write a history page for the Refugee Center’s new website, was interrupted by COVID-19. Many nonprofits, big and small, are in charge of writing and preserving their own histories, as well as the histories of the communities they serve. There are many people who have been involved in the center’s history at one point or another that are still active members of the Champaign-Urbana community. You may have heard about the Refugee Center from one of them. Word of mouth has long been a powerful tool in non-profit work generally, and it has always been especially vital for immigrant services. The Refugee Center was founded in a time when newspapers and physical newsletters were the primary means of communicating to the wider community. But we have moved into a new age of information sharing and it is important the Refugee Center establish itself with these new lines of communication.

There is a lot to learn about local, immigrant, and local immigrant history from the Refugee Center. The center was founded in 1980 by a pair of Vietnamese refugee women, and since that time has opened its doors wide to the ever more diverse and thriving community of immigrants and their families in Champaign County. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the Refugee Center has worked hard to continue supporting immigrants in Champaign County (as well as the wider East Central Illinois Area) by providing relief to many clients through direct financial assistance, continuing services, and other outreach. The role the Refugee Center (alongside many other similarly dedicated agencies) is filling during this crisis reaffirms the need to recognize and record the role agencies like this play in their communities.

Much of my research was to be done in the local Champaign County Historical Archives, which got put on hold when the lockdown went into effect. However, our local archive offers a great online catalog to peruse, and through that and other online resources, I was able to put together a project proposal and bibliography, which I will act on once the opportunity is afforded to me.

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