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IMAA founder dies, but work lives on

Bob Jones of Rochester died Sunday, but his work connecting immigrants and refugees to one another and community resources lives on.

Jones, 69, founded the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association in 1985 with the mission of "building bridges between cultures." In March, the organization's current building, built in 2007, was dedicated as the Robert "Bob" Jones III Building, and a work of art commissioned from local artist Susan Waughtal with the theme of building bridges was unveiled.

Bunly Suy, a Cambodian refugee and original IMAA staff member, led the effort to raise the money needed to commission the art after learning that Jones had been diagnosed with cancer about two years ago.

Suy was one of the thousands of refugees who Jones helped become active and contributing citizens of the United States.

"I've never met a person for whom citizenship was a more vital and energizing idea than it was for Bob," said Doug McGill, a friend of Jones and founder of The Rochester Meditation Center, of which Jones was a member.

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"Bob loved everything about citizenship. He loved the idea of it, and of course the privileges of freedom and learning and travel. But he also embraced and loved the sacred duties and responsibilities of citizenship, which gave him not only structure and purpose, but also great passion and happiness."

In 1975, after returning to Rochester from nine years of serving at the U.S. embassy in Vietnam, Jones gave up his State Department career and took up President Ford's challenge to empty the four Vietnamese refugee camps in the United States in six months. He was one of several local residents who helped with resettlement.

As director of Catholic Charities, then called Catholic Social Services, from 1975 to 1994, Jones saw a need for an organization staffed and governed by immigrants so that they could help each other through their shared knowledge and experience.

"We wanted to have a vehicle whereby refugees were empowered to take more responsibility for their own lives and programs, and also advocate, to speak one voice for their rights and racial justice," Jones said in an interview earlier this year.

The idea gained national attention at the time as the only agency with an all-refugee board and majority refugee staff. It also became Jones' passion.

"I did not take vacations. I did not get married," Jones had said. "Refugees became my extended family."

That passion helped transform the city, McGill said.

"There probably isn't another person who is more responsible for the growth of Rochester as a truly cosmopolitan city, than Bob." McGill said. "In opening Rochester's doors to refugees and immigrants, he changed the look and feel of Rochester forever, and for the better."

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