In September 2013, National Welcoming Week – a nationwide event led by Welcoming America – inspired grassroots activities in Iowa’s Cedar Valley to educate community members about the growing number of refugees from Burma living in Waterloo, and to stimulate widespread engagement in creating a more welcoming community.

Providing prominence, visibility and a unified message in support of National Welcoming Week, local lawmakers – including Cedar Falls and Waterloo mayors Jon Crews and Buck Clark – a number of business owners and nearly 170 others signed the Cedar Valley Welcome Pledge, which welcomes all people with respect and compassion, including the refugee community from Burma.

Burma Iowa Friends – a coalition of community members who help integrate Burmese refugees in eastern Iowa – spearheaded participation in the national movement, and volunteers Lalaina Rabary and Alison Gowans co-chaired the Welcoming Week public relations campaign.

“We went door-to-door to get people to sign the Welcome Pledge,” said Rabary, herself an immigrant from Madagascar. “With the help of an interpreter who speaks Burmese, we introduced community members to their new neighbors. As a result, many people were inspired to get involved and signed up to volunteer with the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) field office here.”

At a fall festival on the final day of Welcoming Week, Burma Iowa Friends and USCRI Des Moines manned a booth to further share with community members what it means to be a welcoming community, while a Burmese Karenni flute-and-drum band performed for passersby.

“Our digital PR efforts generated a lot of positive energy, too,” said Rabary, who earned a communication arts degree at Wartburg College with emphases in PR and intercultural studies. “We got a lot of encouraging feedback on Facebook and Twitter, and we received great emails from people asking how they could get involved.

“Working on Welcoming Week confirmed my passion for bringing people together, and my plans to continue my education in public administration and nonprofit management.”

As a follow-on to Welcoming Week, USCRI Des Moines and the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) have partnered to mobilize student tutors.

“About 50 refugees and almost the same number of students have already expressed interest,” said Ann Grove, Lead Case Manager, USCRI Des Moines. “This brand new program is a double-win, benefiting both refugees and the greater community. Plus, UNI is recognized as a very good school for teaching teachers, and tutoring supplements what many student volunteers are learning in class.”

For more information, visit and or contact

Ann Grove, Lead Case Manager

USCRI Des Moines

Waterloo Project

[email protected]


Lalaina Rabary

[email protected]