Easing the transition to America

By Michael EasterbrookDURHAM, N.C. — When Iván Kohar Parra left his native Colombia for the United States at age 25, his grasp of the English language was shaky at best.

He didn’t have a job, and his college degrees are from a foreign university that few people here recognize.

It was a painful experience, but one that Parra, 36, still draws on in his position as lead organizer of the N.C. Latino Coalition, a network of 60 nonprofit groups striving to help the state’s immigrant population, specifically Latino immigrants.

“I’m an immigrant myself,” says Parra. “I’ve experienced some of the challenges that other immigrants experience.”

While Parra is not shy about flinging himself into the public debate now roiling over Latino immigrants, most of his work as head of the coalition is behind the scenes, helping to bolster other nonprofit groups.

The Durham-based coalition was started in 2002 with seed money from the Latino Community Credit Union and now has two full-time organizers and a part-time administrator.

One goal of the coalition is to help train leaders of nonprofit groups that serve the Latino community, says Parra, while another is to connect those leaders with each other.

Last August, the coalition brought together hundreds of nonprofit leaders and state officials to discuss issues facing Latinos. More than 1,000 people attended the one-day conference at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Raleigh.

The coalition also acts as a safety net, helping to fix problems that other nonprofits either have missed or are too stretched to handle themselves.

When the Durham-based El Centro Hispano needed help assisting a group of mothers obtain citizenship documents for their U.S.-born children, the coalition was there to help.

And the coalition recently came to the aid of a group of Mexican and Central American immigrants living in a Beaufort County trailer park that was receiving water from a contaminated, privately-owned well.

Parra helped convince county commissioners to supply the residents of the park with water from the cleaner, county water system.

 Iván ParraJob: Lead organizer, N.C. Latino Coalition

Born: 1970, Bogotá, Colombia

Family: Wife, Monica Hicks; daughters Fedora, 3, and Aleena, 6 weeks

Education: B.S. and M.S., psychology and family therapy, St. Tomas University, Bogotá, Colombia

Career: Director, El Centro Hispano, 1996-2002; co-founder, Latino Community Credit Union; co-founder, Durham CAN (Congregation, Association and Neighborhoods)

Hobbies: Reading, soccer

Favorite Book: “Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action,” by Michael Gecan

Favorite place to travel: Colombia, particularly Bogotá and Cartagena, an historic city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast

One project the coalition is working on now is a statewide voter campaign aimed at helping Latino immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship.Though there are countless immigrants in North Carolina who are eligible for citizenship, Parra says, many have not applied because they don’t understand the often-complicated process.He hopes the campaign will demonstrate that Latino immigrants want to participate in the country’s democratic process.“We want to show that people want to be part of the United States,” Parra says.

While most Latino immigrants come to the U.S. for work, Parra came to be with his wife, Monica Hicks.

The two met in the early 1990s when Hicks, a native North Carolinian, went to Colombia to volunteer for a nonprofit group working with some of that country’s poorest children.

Parra was working for the group as a staff psychologist.

The couple moved to North Carolina in 1995 and, during his first three months in the U.S., Parra struggled to find a job while learning English.

“It felt like the longest three months of my life,” he says.

Still, Parra found his foothold sooner than many.

A year after moving here, he became director of El Centro Hispano, a position he held until becoming head of the N.C. Latino Coalition in 2002.

In addition to leading the coalition, Parra is a member of the advisory board of NCGives, a Raleigh-based group launched last year to promote the spirit of philanthropy among people of all income levels, not just the wealthy.

In March, NCGives brought together more than 200 people for a conference in Research Triangle Park aimed at exploring how people from diverse cultures and traditions participate in philanthropy.

The goal of NCGives fits in nicely with what his own nonprofit strives to do, says Parra.

“I think the strategy of working with others is the most important thing,” he says.

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