Elevating Asian Voices in the South

Story #15

Meet Leilani Roughton, Executive Director and Founder of New Arrivals Institute. 

The Greensboro native, who is biracial, grew up closely connected to the Chinese community. Her family was actively involved with the Greensboro Chinese Association. As a child, she went to Chinese school, attended traditional dance classes, and was a member of the Lion Dance Troupe. She treasures fond memories of making dumplings and other traditional holiday dishes at Hong Kong House—a once-popular restaurant near UNCG—with other Chinese women in the community.  

Her upbringing formed the foundation of who she would become—a cultural connector and an advocate for immigrants and refugees.

PAVE NC proudly shares her story in two parts—this is the first installment, which sets the stage for the work she does today with the New Arrivals Institute.

Part 1 of her story

How do you identify culturally/ethnically?

My mother always called herself FOB (fresh of the boat) and me ABC (American-Born Chinese), so that is how I have always described myself.

What was it like to grow up as an ABC in Greensboro? 

I was surrounded by immigrants from all over the world. I also had plenty of Asian “Aunties and Uncles” looking out for me. I love my Chinese Singaporean heritage, but things have not always been easy. I was bullied from kindergarten through sixth grade. I was told I sounded different and had a weird name. When I went to the sixth grade, I switched to my middle “American” name. 

I reached my limit in the fifth grade when my math teacher demanded to call me Shawn, as my name was too hard. She essentially erased who I was, and as a result, I am very firm that we call someone by the name they prefer. Your name is part of your identity. 

As such, my daughter also has a Chinese name as her first name. I want her to be knowledgeable and proud of her heritage, even when people are not supportive. It was not easy when I was young and bullied. Having the Asian community to turn to was incredibly beneficial. That experience does help me in my work as many of the children (and some adults) report bullying, and I can talk to them from a place of empathy. 

The Asian community was much smaller than now and less visible, but Greensboro has for well over a century been home to Asians. Many people just didn’t “see” us. My mother is someone who never “met a stranger.” Throughout my childhood, we hosted many Asians in our home while ‘they got on their feet’ and could move out. She taught me compassion for others and service to the community.

 

What was the Greensboro Chinese community like when you were growing up? 

As a child, I was part of the Greensboro Chinese Association. I went to Chinese School, traditional dance classes, and participated in the Lion Dance Troupe. I felt at home doing these activities, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to learn about my heritage. I was never treated as an “other” because I am half Caucasian. In fact, when asked, I always say Chinese before “white” as that heritage is what resonates with me the most. When the Greensboro Chinese Church opened, my home church was where they met for a couple of decades before building their own church in High Point. I also spent every Friday night at Hong Kong House with Auntie Amelia, and she and her family was always a blessing in my life. I acutely feel our loss of her and Uncle Robert.

 

What changes have you observed over the years?

I feel like the Asian population has grown a lot over the years and is much more visible. It is also much easier to find both a variety of Asian restaurants and more importantly, grocery stores. While not all of the ingredients I look for are always in stock, I can find most things. Growing up, there was only Dynasty, but even they have a larger variety than when I was a child. Being able to cook my comfort foods whenever I wish is wonderful. One thing that has changed is that growing up when Chinese Holidays came around, lots of Asian women would gather at Hong Kong House to make dumplings and Zongzi (sticky rice and a variety of ingredients wrapped in banana leaves). 

I miss those days. I would sit with the women and just listen to them talk to one another as I wrapped along with them. I learned many things that way, including the latest “gossip”

 

What are other cultural traditions your family practiced?

A lot of it is food-based. We always have steamboat for Christmas Eve Dinner. We also have traditional meals around Chinese New Year. Learning Chinese Folk Dances. Respecting our Elders. 

It might not be a cultural tradition, but I love to teach my daughter Fuzhou and Mandarin nursery rhymes and phrases. As a high school student, I was often asked to go to various schools to talk about Chinese traditions and perform folk dances. When Mei Mei went to kindergarten, I offered to do the same for her grade and was granted permission, for which I was grateful. I feel like a lot of bullying is based on not understanding and respecting someone. By sharing our traditions and knowledge, we can build those bridges and tear down walls before they are fully built.

 

Did you always know you wanted to work with immigrants and refugees?

Definitely not. I went to UNCG School of Music. I wanted to go into arts management, but life sometimes takes a turn and you end up somewhere unexpected. I am grateful for that change, as I love my work and helping people. Growing up, I was often told I should become a teacher (well, my mother always said doctor) but I always said: “absolutely not.” And now I run a school. Life has a funny way of putting you where you are supposed to be.

If I had not grown up surrounded by our Asian community I would not be where I am today.

Leilani Roughton’s upbringing formed the foundation of who she would become—a cultural connector and an advocate for immigrants and refugees.

Early in her career, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She thought that it might be music-related. But a family friend recommended that she apply for a job at Lutheran Family Services. That experience eventually led to her current role as the executive director and founder of New Arrivals Institute. 

PAVE NC proudly shares her story in two parts—this is the second installment. 

Part 2 of her story

How did your professional journey evolve?

For a time I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career. I interned at Disney World in their special events department. Planning big events and helping them come together was wonderful, and I loved it. But I hated living in Florida. 

I was kind of drifting between jobs when one of my mother’s friends suggested I apply for a job at Lutheran Family Services. I was skeptical but went with her. I worked as their part-time vocational education instructor for three months and then transitioned to English language training supervisor. 

Over my years there I began taking on more and more responsibility, even writing their refugee services applications and contracts. I thought it was weird to have someone leading a minor program doing it for the much larger program, but did it without complaint. When we opened as New Arrivals Institute, I had all the knowledge needed to apply for grants and write contracts so that extra duty at LFS was integral to me being where I am today.

 

How did New Arrivals Institute become established?

The Refugee New Arrivals School was developed in the late 90s as a response to the issue of refugee women with young children who were unable to attend English classes due to a lack of childcare. 

They applied for money from the N.C. State Refugee Office and opened the school in 1998. I joined Lutheran Family Services in 2004, and when they decided to close their Greensboro office, the refugees in Greensboro came to me and asked that I find a way to continue our educational services. They knew education for both themselves and their children was key to their success and integration in the United States. 

I told them I didn’t know how to continue the work. They began organizing themselves (especially the Nepali from Bhutan). They began a letter-writing campaign and petitions to keep the school open. About two weeks later they brought me the stack of personal letters and the petition. 

I was humbled that they had faith in me and my team to find a way to keep the school open. They asked that I give the letters to the State Refugee Office, which I did. 

Churches pledged the seed money to open a new non-profit that could provide the educational and supportive services the community needed. 

I spoke to the State Refugee Coordinator, and she believed in us as well. Lutheran Family Services gave us an additional six months to stay open so that we had enough time to do all the administrative work needed to start a nonprofit. 

When we closed our doors with LFS officially on December 31, 2010, we opened our doors on January 1 as New Arrivals Institute. 

We are here because we were asked to do the work, and the community believed we could do it. 

 

How has NAI evolved?

Over the years we continued to have open dialog with refugees regarding their needs and added a number of programs that make us a hub of services. Today our school has English and vocational education classes, the preschool and on-site case management, health/medical assistance, family and child services, translation and evaluations of overseas transcripts, cultural orientation, and citizenship classes. 

Clients brought to our attention that immigrants also need access to the same services, so we have sought and received funding to include programs for immigrants. While refugees remain our primary client base, we do assist immigrants. This inclusion of immigrants is part of what kept us open during the previous administration that sharply cut refugee arrivals. 

My philosophy of service is to find and build strong community partnerships. We cannot do everything, but we can build relationships and bridges with other agencies/companies/service organizations so that when a client needs help that we cannot directly provide, we know where to send them and help walk them through the process of receiving those outside services. 

Then we follow up with the client to make sure they are getting their needs met. It takes time and energy to build these relationships, but it is worth it and ensures my staff and I are not overwhelmed with needs. I love our vision, as it speaks to what we do and strive for: “A community that welcomes refugees and immigrants and provides them with the tools they need to achieve their goals.”

 

Can you tell us more about NAI programs?

Our focus is on providing educational and supportive services for refugees and immigrants. We are kind of a safety net. Other agencies sometimes work with people for their initial six months in country; we work with them until they achieve citizenship. 

We don’t find people jobs or housing or offer immigration advice or assistance because there are other agencies that do it much better than we could.    

An important key to the work we do is that every program must have education built into it. We want clients to become self-sufficient. While it is faster and easier to, for example, simply make a doctor’s appointment for a client, it is more beneficial to use that as a learning opportunity and have the client make the call with our assistance. 

When an emergency happens, we step in and help but we try to circle back later (after the emergency is over) and discuss with the client(s) what to do if it happens again and sometimes turn it into a lesson (with no identification of who it happened to) so that others also know what to do.

 Additionally, I tell clients to share the information with their neighbors and friends who are not current clients. Refugees and immigrants are incredible individuals who know a lot more than people give them credit for. If we give them the knowledge and tools, they are able to move forward with their lives. When we infantilize them, we are not really helping them. When I hear someone say the client cannot learn how to ride the bus, I remind the American that this is someone who walked hundreds (or even a thousand or more) miles without GPS or even a light through jungles and/or deserts to flee their country, often with only the clothes on their backs and made it to the neighboring country and refugee camp. They are not helpless. They are survivors and deserve our respect.

 

What are your challenges?

Money and space. We are completely out of space at our current location. If we expand any more I may need to open a separate administrative office, which I don’t want to do. A lot of the reason why our programs work so well is that we are all together. 

Management is on-site. I was asked a couple of weeks ago how I seem to always know everything regarding the community first, and the simple answer is I am here and willing to listen, as are my staff, and the clients know that. 

Clients know where we are and that if they show up with an issue we can, most likely, help them right away— even without an appointment. If it is not urgent, we schedule an appointment within a week. Moving the school itself is not an option, as this is an incredibly hospitable church that we have built a relationship with.

 

What are your successes?

When a client comes back, even after many years, and gives us an update on how they are doing. Whenever they gain citizenship, get a job, buy a house, etc I rejoice with them. I know it is due to their own hard work, but it is lovely to know we were a part of that and that they value the services we provide.

 

What are your frustrations?

It is so frustrating that people think we are just a school. I hear all the time “I had no idea that you did more than just teach English.” 

The English classes are very important, but they are not at all the only things we do. At this point, the bulk of our funding is not for English classes or the school. We are a hub of services, and I would love for people to understand that. A lot of people think that there are no services available to refugees once they are in the country six months, but that is not the case. I worry that people fall through the cracks because they are not referred properly.

 

What does the Greensboro/Triad community need to do to better support new arrivals?

Funding is always wonderful, especially reoccurring funding (even at small amounts) but there is so much more that is needed.

We have some limited items we need to regularly give out such as diapers, cleaning, and personal hygiene supplies. We don’t usually distribute clothes, with the exception of winter coats, hats, gloves, and scarves. In the fall we do a blanket drive, as many refugees who arrive in the summer are not given blankets for the winter, only a sheet or thin blanket. 

We also need volunteers for the following:

  • Tutors for school-aged children
  • Preschool and adult classroom volunteers
  • Assistance with spring and fall projects in our outdoor learning environment
  • Help in planning special events like NAI fundraisers and joint events like World Refugee Day
  • Help in filling open paid positions at our office and school. 
  • Promoting NAI and its events.

 

Are there better support systems in place today for new arrivals (compared to when Lutheran Family Services was in operation)?

This is a tough one. I would say there are, and there are not. Things spread really fast on social media and if there is a need posted on Facebook, Twitter, etc it is known very quickly. 

So sometimes problems are smaller or bigger than they first seem when reading a posting. In some cases, clients are referred to a better-known agency that does not understand the community or specific issues, rather than someone who specializes in working with the population. 

I do a lot more outreach to other agencies, services, etc, than I did at LFS, and I think that helps as people who come across these issues know where to go. I try to ensure that if I don’t know an answer, I at least know who to call and/or email to get the answer.

One benefit—at least for us, but I think it helps the community— is that we are not a big agency. When we started we were considered small, but I learned recently that now we are considered a medium-sized nonprofit.  

I also feel that partnership from agency to agency is better, especially for us. We strive to make sure things are not seen as competition. I know that is hard for a lot of agencies, especially when we are competing for the same limited funding, but when we don’t get a specific grant and someone else does, we rejoice for them and make sure that we are able to effectively refer our clients to them for services.

I remember: “A man who cannot tolerate small misfortunes can never accomplish great things.”

 

What does an event like World Refugee Day mean to you, personally?  

Home. Celebrate. Uplift.

Refugees come here seeking a home and a new life. Sometimes I ask what home means to them. Some say safety or security, food, family, etc. For some women, it is getting an education or their children getting an education, which makes me rejoice. These are all important and very personal things

At WRD we want clients to celebrate finding a home and safety. We want the community to learn about and celebrate their new neighbors. We share our culture with them and they share their culture with us. It is building bridges that can positively impact our entire Greensboro community.

WRD is a time to uplift those who have lost so much. We let refugees tell their personal story if they so desire. This humanizes our clients for those who have no knowledge of their experiences. Uplifting also means sharing their triumphs and enjoying one another. 

This is important as newly arrived refugees can hear the personal story of refugees who have been here longer (we also have newly-arrived refugees speak). In listening to these refugees, they can see for themselves what can be achieved. It demonstrates what I tell them about freedom in America. America is the land of the free, but that does not mean everything is free. It means you have the freedom to choose the future you want and work towards that future. They have to put in the work. We can support and, if asked, help guide them. 

Favorite Asian snack: Prawn chips

Favorite AAPI book or movie: “Joy Luck Club,” all of my Asian friends could find things to relate to.

Steamed buns or dumplings? Dumplings

Favorite dim sum item: Lo Bak Go (turnip cake)

The most “Asian” thing that you do: Strive for perfection

Rice or noodles, and why: This is a hard one. Rice by the slimmest of margins because I cook rice more than noodles. 

My absolute favorite dish in the world is Wantan Mee from Fei Fei Noodles in Singapore. Every time I go back to Singapore, I must make my pilgrimage there for the noodles. I have had it for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl, the elder who cooked (he has sadly passed, but his sons kept the business going with the same recipe) was astonished by how much of his noodles I could eat. And I have to have Kickapoo Joy Juice.

Want to go?

What: World Refugee Day

When: 10 a.m.-2 p.m., June 18

Where: Oka T. Hester Park soccer fields, 935 Ailanthus St., Greensboro.

The event features music, dancing, informational booths, food trucks, and the inaugural soccer match between local refugees and Greensboro City employees. 

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Story Collaborators
Sayaka Matsuoka

Sayaka Matsuoka

Managing Editor, Triad City Beat & Freelance Journalist

Sayaka Matsuoka (she/her) is a journalist who grew up at the intersection of her Japanese heritage and the suburban south. She is the managing editor for Triad City Beat, a weekly newspaper covering the Triad in NC, and is also the Diversity Chair for the Association for Alternative Newsmedia, a national organization of more than 100 news media in North America.
 
Using her cultural background, she focuses on issues surrounding race and identity, immigrant food culture, activist art, and cultural exchange.
Dave Soper, Maunaleo Ventures

Dave Soper, Maunaleo Ventures

Media Production

Dave is a builder, fixer, and protector of digital things. He has worked for small businesses and Fortune 200 companies across multiple industries, including financial services, manufacturing, and defense.

Dave was born in the District of Columbia but considers the Districts of North Kohala and Hamakua his spirit home [once from the District, always from a District]. Dave does not do social media or answer the phone very often, so if you want to reach him, you will probably need to go analog. Brah,  dasswhyhard!

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