National Meet & Greet Tour: Des Moines, Iowa

On April 26th, Executive Director Holly Ham and I were in Des Moines, Iowa at a stop on the National Meet and Greet Tour. Our collaboration with the Greater Des Moines Partnership was key in making this visit to Des Moines a success.

First, we met with the Des Moines Public School District (DMPS). The meeting was held at the New American Center where DMPS Superintendent Dr. Tom Ahart noted the District’s longstanding tradition of welcoming students from all over the world. From Asia, there were refugees from Southeast Asia (e.g. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) to the more recent arrivals from Bhutan and Burma.  “The District enrolled students from more than 100 countries among its student population of 33,000, almost 3,000 of whom are Asian American or Pacific Islanders,” said Dr. Ahart. “Nationally, they represent the fastest growing ethnic demographic. The AAPI population is expected to more than double by 2060.”

We had a good dialogue with DMPS staff and parents who came to the New American Center for English language classes including discussions about skills to better support their children’s success.

New arrivals to Des Moines from Vietnam, Burma and Bhutan at The Center for New Americans

We also visited with Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC). EMBARC was established in 2011 to provide cultural and linguistic appropriate services to diverse groups of refugees from Burma.  We had the opportunity to hear directly from the staff of EMBARC and from community members who shared their refugee and resettlement experiences.  We heard that one issue common to many of the community members is the barrier to employment due to language access barriers.  Many Burmese immigrants pose trade skills and working experiences from their home country. However, since they are unable to pass the licensing exams in English, they are not able to enter the trades that they were qualified to do here in America.

Executive Director Holly Ham meets a pastor from Burma that has settled in Des Moines

EMBARC Executive Director Henny Ohr and Burmese immigrants met with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

In the evening, the Iowa Asian Alliances hosted an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Community Leaders’ meeting at the Greater Des Moines Partnership. With leaders from 30 different community organizations, Holly shared the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ vision and areas of focus, and engaged with them on key issues impacting the Des Moines AAPI community. Among the many concerns shared were healthcare access for prevalent AAPI health issues, social security benefits and federal resources to support workforce development and job training.  Language barriers were also identified as a key issue to full integration in education and the job market.

A youth leadership group joined the Community Leaders Meeting. They have great expectations for leadership roles in our country.

AAPI leaders from Des Moines gather for a Community Leaders Meeting at the Greater Des Moines Partnership to discuss issues impacting AAPIs

The AAPI leadership in Des Moines is engaged and very knowledgeable at both the local and federal levels. The Midwest continues to be a landing site for new arrivals to America, and we plan to stay connected with the Des Moines community and others that we will meet soon.


KimOanh Nguyen-Lam is a Senior Advisor at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.