In the first two decades of the 20th century there were fifteen million immigrants to the United States, the highest level of immigration since the birth of the nation. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) recognized the need to provide specialized services to these new immigrants and created a special department to address this need. Later, the YWCA’s War Work Council transformed itself into the Department of Immigration and Foreign Communities, and established “International Institutes” in more than 60 cities in the United States. The International Institute of Connecticut was established in 1918.
In 1935, the Institute became an independent organization and was no longer affiliated with the YWCA. IICONN played an active role in helping Italian, Hungarian, and many other Eastern European immigrants and refugees resettle to Bridgeport. During this time, the Institute’s core programs were shaped to include legal immigration assistance, social services and language assistance, and cross-cultural education.
In 1975, as the Viet Nam War reached its peak, the Institute mobilized the community and assisted thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants who came to the United States seeking political asylum. IICONN opened offices in Stamford and Hartford so it could help Southeast Asian immigrants throughout Connecticut.
The 80’s brought change to the US immigration system and the US refugee resettlement program. The Refugee Act of 1980 was passed and created a federal funding stream to support professional refugee resettlement services such as case management, employment assistance, and integration services. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted an earned path to citizenship to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, thousands of whom were served by the Institute. The Institute’s staff nearly doubled and the agency’s legal immigration program emerged as the premier nonprofit provider of immigration services in the state.
During the 1990’s IICONN helped thousands of refugees fleeing Bosnia, Albania and other neighboring countries. In the first wave of immigrants coming to the United States between 1992 to 1995, the Institute assisted hundreds of Bosnian, Serb and Croatian refugees and later between 1998 to 1999, the Institute helped thousands of refugees who fled Kosovo and the former Yugoslavia after the second armed conflict.
For close to three decades, Myra Oliver provided visionary leadership to IICONN, seeing the organization through extraordinary times and growing the agency in reputation and practice. Ms. Oliver was a dedicated humanitarian and was renowned for her deep commitment to refugees and immigrants as well as to her staff. Between 2008 and 2011, IICONN had several changes in leadership following Ms. Oliver’s death until Angela Zurowski Andersen was appointed as the new Executive Director. Angela, who originally came to IICONN as a graduate school intern, provided smart and strategic leadership to the agency, navigating difficult internal and external challenges with grace, intelligence and her unique sense of humor. After a courageous battle with cancer, Angela passed away in November 2014. Both of these exceptional women left their marks on IICONN, keeping the agency client-focused and mission-driven and building it to what it is today. To honor and commemorate Angela's life and legacy, a internship in Angela's name has been established at Western Connecticut State University. The ARZA-IICONN Internship will provide a Social Sciences student with a paid internship at IICONN. For more information and an opportunity to donate to the ARZA-IICONN internship, please go to https://alumni.wcsu.edu/arza.
Today, the needs of immigrants and refugees in Connecticut are more complex and require the Institute to offer an array of integrated interdisciplinary services that can address the needs of its clients.
The Institute is also helping an increasing number of individuals who are victims of serious crimes, including human trafficking, and it has established new programs with the FBI, domestic violence organizations and other agencies in order to provide appropriate services to address this growing need. Our Survivors of Torture Program addresses the special needs of immigrants and refugees who have been victims of torture. IICONN’s new micro-loan program provides low-income refugees and immigrants access to non-traditional lending, and assists them to build credit. The organization is also playing a greater role in educating the public about key issues affecting new immigrants.