The Chapel Hill Building Integrated Communities Project is a community planning project working to improve communication with the town’s foreign-born population and support their participation in local government. The program is also a collaboration between community groups, residents, the town of Chapel Hill and UNC’s statewide BIC program.
Sarah Viñas, assistant director of the Chapel Hill Office of Housing and Community, said the refugee arrival to Orange County and Chapel Hill, specifically, was relatively steady.
“Most recently, it’s ranged anywhere over the last 10 years from 20 people to 194,” Viñas said. “We have amazing diversity in terms of countries of origin, in terms of languages spoken, which I think is something that we’re really proud of and have been able to really highlight through BIC and bring people together across language and across cultures.”
According to the Chapel Hill BIC Project Community Assessment, the top five countries of origin for Chapel Hill immigrants are China, India, Korea, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Other top countries include Argentina, Japan and Canada.
Refugee Support Center Director Flicka Bateman said UNC has been the biggest player in attracting migrants to the area.
“The main reason is because people were able to get jobs working third shift and night shift in housekeeping at UNC,” Bateman said. “That is why so many people were first placed here and then that becomes a snowball. As others come, they want to come because their relatives are here, they have an anchor here.”
Viñas said resettlement agencies usually assist in determining where immigrants might be placed and a lot of movement is based on where people have existing social networks, like friends and family.
As the immigrant population has grown in Chapel Hill, the Town has had to develop programs to make sure they know what services are available to them and how the Town works.
The Chapel Hill Peoples Academy is a five-week opportunity for residents to learn about the town’s services, connect with community members and learn about becoming a community leader. Though anyone can apply, Chapel Hill Town Council member Hongbin Gu said she recently attended the Chapel Hill Peoples graduation and noticed foreign-born newcomers were actively participating in the program.
“We’re trying to help those people to be engaged, to participate in various advisory boards, and that is the way we help them to integrate," Gu said. "But I think there is still a lot that we need to do to be open about that. If you look at the composition of our town’s advisory boards, there are a very limited number of immigrant participation.”
Bateman said without language access, this population cannot get involved or apply for anything if they do not speak English.
During their meeting on Nov. 13, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved the Language Access Plan, an initiative of Chapel Hill BIC’s action plan.
The Language Access Program is designed to help those with limited English proficiency to communicate with the town in their preferred language. The program includes English, Spanish, Burmese, Karen and Mandarin Chinese.
“I’m really pleased that we’re doing it,” Chapel Hill Town Council member Michael Parker said. “We want to make sure that all of our residents have access to all of our services, can participate fully in government and can be involved as much as possible.”
Bateman said the Town approving the program is a "fabulous move."
“I think they should really continue trying to reach out to agencies that bridge trust and that refugees have access to communicating about events and surveys,” Bateman said.
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