At first glance, you might not realize that an Immigrant Welcome Center is situated within the Indianapolis Public Library, located in downtown Indianapolis. Its history began in 2005 when the former First Lady of Indianapolis, Amy Minick Peterson, noticed a change in the diversity of the Indianapolis community that prompted her to lead a study to determine how well the needs of incoming immigrants were being met in Central Indiana.
It was a time of change for the Circle City — and a positive one at that. More people of color, from different countries and origins, were coming to Indianapolis, and Peterson felt like there should be a place where those people could feel welcomed. Together with members of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC), Peterson researched various immigrant populations and their needs and studied best practices led by other cities for assisting immigrants and refugees. By 2006, the Immigrant Welcome Center had been established.
In 2015, the Immigrant Welcome Center relocated to Fountain Square, and then in May 2021, it moved to its current location, the main branch of the Indianapolis Public Library on East St. Clair Street. Gurinder Kaur currently serves as the Immigrant Welcome Center’s CEO, and she is a proud immigrant from India.
“I came to the U.S. in the early 1990s because there was a need for physical therapists. Born and brought up in New Delhi, India, my parents were both teachers,” Kaur explained, adding, “I’m a Sikh, so being a physical therapist was aligned with my values of serving people and helping them get better and live life to their fullest potential.”
Upon her arrival, Kaur was recruited to Detroit, Michigan for work, and she was able to enter the United States due to an employment visa.
“My immigrant journey is also one of privilege. Because I came on an employment visa, I had a job, and I had a person waiting to receive me at the airport. Housing had been set up by my employer and I had a whole team of individuals who helped me integrate into the community, which a lot of our immigrant neighbors don’t have. That is why the Immigrant Welcome Center plays a huge role,” Kaur said.
In the mid-1990s, Kaur found herself an adopted Hoosier when she made the move to Indianapolis and enrolled at the University of Indianapolis to obtain her master’s degree in physical therapy.
Truth be told, Kaur didn’t exactly love Indianapolis at first, but the city eventually grew on her. “I hated Indianapolis,” she said. “Imagine coming from New Delhi to Detroit, Michigan, which has such a diversity of individuals, and then in Indianapolis, I didn’t see many people who looked like me or who spoke my language. I didn’t see grocery stores that I could go to or restaurants.”
After an initial taste of Indy, Kaur made her way back to Michigan, but she returned to the Circle City for good in the late 1990s, and she became a citizen of the United States in October 1999. “I’ve lived here ever since,” Kaur said.
The cultural diversity of Indianapolis has blossomed since Kaur first arrived to the city, and she accepted her current position as CEO of the Immigrant Welcome Center in September 2020. “We now have lots more individuals who are from Latin American countries, and Africa, India, and Burma. So, the diversity of our community has changed. That’s why it makes it more meaningful for me to be in this position,” she explained.
It is worth noting that Kaur is the organization’s first CEO who is a woman of color, as well as an immigrant. In her role as the CEO of the Immigrant Welcome Center, Kaur not only helps welcome incoming immigrants to Indiana, she also oversees a wealth of programs and resources for immigrants and refugees.
For example, there is a free database of resources, a multilingual helpline available in over 200 languages, and a “Natural Helpers” volunteer program that assists immigrants and refugees who are transitioning to life in the United States. There are also educational discussions, virtual citizenship classes, citizenship application assistance programs, and adult English language literacy classes, to name just a few of the services the center provides.
With their innovative programming and resources, it is evident that Kaur and the team at the Immigrant Welcome Center are working to help immigrants thrive in as many ways as possible.
Mary Farucci is an Indianapolis-based marketing professional, digital content creator, and writer with a passion for people, sharing their stories, and a strong cup of coffee. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and on LinkedIn.