Unity Through Dialogue

Nigerian-born Chike Okafor, who owns Novelty Grocery in west suburban Streamwood, serves 

on the Community Relations Commission, which was established as a connection between new 

foreign-born residents, the village board and the rest of the community. Photo by Fernando Dí­az.

Nigerian-born Chike Okafor, who owns Novelty Grocery in west suburban Streamwood, serves on the Community Relations Commission, which was established as a connection between new foreign-born residents, the village board and the rest of the community. Photo by Fernando Dí­az.

These days, he goes by “H.H.,” but Hormoz Hormozi still remembers when he couldn’t speak a lick of English. As an Iranian exchange student in 1959, Hormozi worked at a restaurant in the kitchen. At first, he had no clue what the cooks were saying when they were asking him to get a utensil, like a fork, spoon or bowl with little holes in it. So he’d bring over a handful of items, which they’d select from and then Hormozi would ask what the word was for the utensil. Once the cook grabbed the strainer, “I would write it down in my little book,” Hormozi remembered.

The same scenario played out with the pepperoncini. And forget about studying. “At school, you have to work three times more than others because you have to have all the dictionaries,” he said.

Hormozi’s experience has imbued him with a sense of responsibility that motivates him to help other immigrants in Streamwood, a village of 36,732 on the western fringe of Cook County where, according to the census, a third of households speak a language other than English. The village’s Community Relations Commission, which Hormozi helped start three years ago, has worked to ease tensions and explain some of the particulars of local government, such as vehicle ordinances and parking issues, to newcomers and even offer translation services for emergency personnel. It has also become the vehicle for the village’s international community to maintain and share their cultures.

“I know how difficult it is for someone new to come in,” said Hormozi, who lives across the street from Streamwood in unincorporated Hanover Township. The commission, whose roster reads like a model United Nations with members hailing from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Mexico, has participated in the annual parade, hosted seminars and produced a bilingual brochure for residents. For the past two years, the Streamwood Park District has hosted international events, providing a place for residents to share dishes, dances and other aspects of their cultures.

At last year’s 50th anniversary of the village’s incorporation, mariachis were part of the entertainment. One of this year’s themes included a program that showcased marriage as it is celebrated around the world. There was even a space for weddings in the U.S., as a way to educate immigrants about the custom in their adopted country.

Streamwood has undergone significant demographic changes in the past several decades. Once a bedroom community, the village has a mix of residential areas and commercial centers. Between 1990 and 2000, the foreignborn population almost doubled to 7,304, to make up nearly 20 percent of the village’s total population.

While Hispanics are the largest minority group, Hormozi said that the commission has had trouble reaching them. When the committee holds events, turnout from the Hispanic community is low. Hormozi believes it could be the fact that many work long hours. “It’s very difficult to get international people together; everyone’s working,” he said.

The commission is similar to efforts in other suburban communities that have recognized a need to address immigrant concerns and questions. In some cases, as in Streamwood’s, they provide a conduit for resident immigrants to approach the local government without fear, which Hormozi believes keeps many people from civic participation. In other cases, they examine issues of human rights and monitor complaints of unfair housing.

Edwin Silverman, chief of the Illinois Department of Human Service’s Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Services, said that these efforts by local communities are an essential part of ensuring smooth immigrant integration.

“If you’re talking about communities, you’re talking about the smallest units of local government; government can do an awful lot to facilitate integration, but it takes a local voice,” he said.

Village Manager Gary O’Rourke said Streamwood officials established the commission because “we’re trying to keep in tune,” with a changing constituency. Chike Okafor, a Nigerian immigrant who opened an ethnic grocery store in March 2005 in Streamwood and now serves on the commission, said that’s one of the strengths of the commission: it created an avenue for active foreign-born residents and businessmen to bend the ear of village leaders on immigrant issues. “We’re trying to educate and bring other cultures to the commission so that we reduce tension –¦ and move beyond stereotypes,” he said.

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