The history behind our agency began in 1911 when the New York YWCA established the International Institute for the protection and welfare of immigrant young women. Predators considered these women easy targets because they were unfamiliar with the culture and rarely spoke English. The predators intercepted women at rail and train stations and offered women help with finding homes, jobs or relatives, but then tricked them into prostitution or slavery.
In 1916, the Cleveland YWCA’s Department of Immigration opened its own International Institute. Initially, the center served Slovenes, Croatians, Serbs and Italians that settled in the Collinwood area. By 1920, the institute employed 14 nationality workers operating in 2 neighborhood centers. Often, employees traveled to settlements, libraries, churches, clients’ homes and anywhere else immigrants converged to provide English classes where and when they were needed.
International Institute employees taught English, served as translators, helped immigrants with personal problems and sponsored nationality clubs to encourage “a distinct national consciousness.” The institute also provided Greater Cleveland residents with information and understanding for the city’s various ethnic groups.
The Citizens Bureau, one of the two components that would eventually become International Services Center, was a venture of the Americanization Committee of the Mayor’s Advisory War Committee. Between 1917-1921, the Citizens Bureau provided a variety of assistance to 100,000 immigrants and taught 15,000 naturalization classes.
After World War II, demand for those seeking help with naturalization declined, but the need for assisting those citizens who wanted to bring friends and relatives to the U.S. increased. In 1949, a determination was made that the Citizens Bureau and the International Institute offered similar services. A merger took effect in 1953 with the formation of the Nationalities Services Center as a 501c3. The new organization, Nationalities Services Center, continued to provide the services of its predecessors, but also initiated new programs. One of those services, publicizing the contributions of foreign-born citizens, helped to increase positive public opinion for immigrants.
In 1958, the agency received accreditation by the Board of Immigration Appeals. This guaranteed immigration counseling and representation in Immigration Court.
Other services continued to be added to the many services of the agencies. In the late 1950’s, the Nationalities Services Center sponsored refugee resettlement of almost 6,000 Hungarians after the Hungarian Revolution. It became the first refugee resettlement agency in Cleveland. This work continued with resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970’s and other refugee groups in subsequent decades. To date, the International Services Center has resettled more than 13,000 refugees into the city of Cleveland.
The Language Bank of Cleveland began in the late 1960’s as a way to offer translation and interpreter services to our community. This service gave assistance on an emergency and non-emergency basis to those in need.
The center’s English to Speakers of Other Languages program was expanded in the 1990’s to include two sites, eleven classes, and over 600 students per year. A Family Literacy Program was added in 1993 which offered an intergenerational program during the summer months. From that point on, the education program ran year round and other programs were added, including vocational training classes.
The center adopted the name of International Services Center in 1994. That same year, the U.S. Department of State rated the ISC’s resettlement program with its highest ranking, “commendable.”
Today, the International Services Center continues to coordinate all aspects of transitioning to American culture. It also works to provide cross-cultural awareness for our community.