Fabiola Hamdan understands how challenging it can be to start over in a new country.

She moved to Madison from Bolivia with her family when she was 17, because her mother needed brain surgery.

“It was a struggle, not knowing the language and (I had a) desire to study and help my family,” she said.

That personal experience, along with her years as a social worker and longtime advocate for the Latino community, will inform her new position as the first ever Dane County immigration affairs specialist. Hamdan will help coordinate county and nonprofit services to immigrant families, and direct immigrants to those services.

After Donald Trump was elected president, Madison nonprofits serving immigrants were flooded with questions and concerns. In February, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced the creation of a new county position of immigration affairs specialist. 

In that new role, Hamdan said she hopes to build better bridges between nonprofits, the county and immigrant families seeking services.

Hamdan will educate the immigrant community about services and resources available to them and provide clear, updated information about county, state and federal laws. One of her first priorities will be to help explain the consequences of Trump’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Hamdan will also work with the Dane County Department of Human Services’ social workers, to help them better serve immigrant families. She’ll facilitate collaborations between nonprofits like the Catholic Multicultural Center immigration program, Centro Hispano and the new local Voces de la Frontera office, she said.

Finally, she wants to connect people who are looking to help immigrant families, but don’t know how.

She applied for the position because helping the immigrant community is “dear to her heart,” she said. As a senior social worker with Joining Forces for Families for many years, she witnessed the struggles of immigrant families first hand.

She would tell young Latinos her story, showing them that “if a girl from Bolivia with no English and a sick mom could make it, you can do it.”

Hamdan learned English, took classes at MATC and UW-Madison, and eventually earned a bachelor's and master’s degree. She earned a Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Social Workers, was a YWCA woman of Distinction in 2011 and was named one of the “29 Most Powerful Latinos in Wisconsin” by Madison365. She's on the Latino Children and Families Council, the Latino Professional Association and the Latino Action Support Network. 

“Everything is possible, I’m not just saying that,” she said.

In February, Parisi also established a fund to assist those who want to apply for citizenship. The county put aside $150,000 which will be housed by the Madison Community Foundation. It’s not yet clear when that fund will become available to immigrants who can’t afford to apply for citizenship, Hamdan said.

Hamdan applauded Parisi for his efforts.

“We didn't have (these services) before, because it’s highly political,” she said. “Politics aside, I always say let’s look at the family. Forget you are a Democrat or Republican, let’s just look at how we can better assist this family.”

Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano, agreed that the Hamdan’s position was a move in the right direction for Dane County.

“I feel like it’s a long time coming, and it’s a first step in getting more positions that reflect the needs of our community,” Coller said. “She’s got so much history here and she’s really part of this community.”