This week, Welcoming Week launches at the YMCA. As defined by Y-USA, this week is a “celebration of the growing movement of communities that fully embrace new Americans and their contributions to the social fabric of our country. It’s a chance for neighbors — both immigrants and U.S.-born residents — to get to know one another and celebrate what unites us as a community.”
At the YMCA of Metro Denver, there will be a multitude of activities to recognize and welcome the immigrants and refugees in our communities. Members will showcase all the ways they are welcoming, people will learn about the Y’s immigrant outreach initiatives, and children will explore different cultures.
As we celebrate this week, I challenge all of us to really consider how we, as individuals, see other cultures and how we are truly welcoming. I have my own story of being an “outsider” coming to a new world and having to adjust, and this experience has framed my perceptions, as a human being, as an American citizen, and as a leader at the YMCA, an organization built on diversity and inclusion.
I was born in Denver, and when I was young, my parents got divorced. At the ripe old age of four, I was sent over 3,000 miles away to live with my grandmother in Damascus, Syria. I did not speak Arabic, nor did I know my relatives, with the exception of my grandmother who had spent a year with us two years prior. As I acclimated to this environment, I began to embrace a new culture and a new life. At school, the kids saw me as the kid from America and were intrigued; I was different. I didn’t look like the other kids. But they wanted to be around me, and they wanted to get to know me. And while I became entrenched in the culture, I never saw myself as a Middle Easterner. Afterall, I was an American.
Fast forward seven years: I returned to the US and the tables turned once again. Moving back to America, I was the new kid from the Middle East who had to re-learn English. I was a foreigner, and not an American. I didn’t look like the other kids, and the kids didn’t know how to relate to me. I was different. I was an outcast!
Looking back, this was probably one of the hardest times of my life, but it molded me into the person I am today. As a newcomer in two different worlds, I gained an appreciation that we are all different, but we are fundamentally the same.
We’re all human beings made up of spirit, mind and body who long to be loved, accepted and cared for. We crave friendships, relationships and community. So rather than looking at what divides us — our skin color, language, culture or religion — how can we connect on what we share: Love, friendship, care, service. How can we appreciate the fact that our differences make our world a beautiful place?
My time in Damascus gave me a love for different cultures and different ways of life. It is this perspective that I bring to Welcoming Week — not just in the upcoming days, but every day of the year. I strive to find commonalities with whomever I meet. After all, we’re all humans and we’re all created equal. I’m reminded of the verse in Galatians that speaks to the equality we have: “So there is no difference between Jew or Gentiles…between men and women; because you are all in one union…”
I challenge all of us to reflect on our own perspectives and how we make others feel. I urge us to lead by our actions. And I encourage everyone to join the YMCA of Metro Denver in bridging the gap and creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all.
President and CEO
YMCA of Metro Denver