Bias-Free Columbia Coalition Aims for Immigrant Integration

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COLUMBIA - Columbia's growing diversity fostered a town hall discussion at city hall Tuesday night, about ways to smooth racial bias in the community.

The Bias-Free Columbia Coalition met for its third series of public events, this time, focusing on ways to integrate Muslim and Latino immigrants into Columbia's community.

Dr. Rashed Nizam and an MU student, Arwa Mohammad, from the Central Missouri Islamic Center spoke about the diverse background of Columbia's Muslim community, approximately 1,000 people strong. Mohammad's presentation highlighted and refocused common misconceptions, ranging from the topics of terrorists, to jihads and hijabs.

Nizam said, when people ask him about his country, he responds, "This is my country where my grandparents lived, and where my grandchildren will be buried. That's the way we feel."

Similarly, a Columbia resident from Venezuela said when people ask what's going on in the country, he says he's lived in Columbia 20 years. He knows just as much as them.

"When you try to get that idea out, be very mindful of the use of your words because it carries a heavy, heavy weight," Alejandra Gudino of the University of Missouri's Family Nutrition Education program said.

"We are not different communities. If we use the language, we create a serious, serious trouble. You are dividing. We are just one community, that's where we are.And we're here because we want that one community to be healthy, to be strong, and to be fantastic," Gudino said.

Nearly 25 people showed up to the meeting, and many agreed -- interaction between community members and the Columbia Police Department is critical for understanding.

Organizer Don Love explained, in the current program, officers learn about respect and cultural differences, but they're not directly connected with community members of different backgrounds.

Currently, Police Chief Ken Burton said there's just one officer who speaks Spanish, and he's not certain how fluent he is. The problem? Limited funding. An idea was brought up though, to recruit locals who speak Arabic, Spanish, etc., to bridge the language barrier.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Columbia's Hispanic population grew from 1,733 in 2000, to 3,729 in 2010 -- a nearly 2,000 person increase.

The coalition's goal is for "everyone to get to know each other," Love said. And continued, that process takes more than just talk -- it takes action.  

The next meeting is scheduled for December 7 at 7 p.m. Kansas City police officers Jack Colwell and Chip Huth will share information about their training program, to help officers develop "unconditional respect" for all members of the community they serve, the coalition said.

The coalition includes representatives from the NAACP, Columbia Police Department, Columbia Human Rights Commission, Columbia Division of Human Services, the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, CoMo Citizens, ACLU, Missouri Civil Liberties Association, and Missouri Association for Social Welfare.