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Photo: Michał Iwanowski
Michał Iwanowski came across graffiti in Wales that said: ‘Go home, Polish.’ Eventually he did. The
Guardian writes that his 105-day slog restored his faith in the people of a volatile, fractured Europe.

Today’s divisiveness is exaggerated. There are certainly times I chide myself for naïveté, for believing that divisiveness is exaggerated only because I want to. Maybe it isn’t true. Then I read an article like this one about a photographer in Wales who, buffeted by Brexit xenophobia, decided on an experiment.

Sean O’Hagan writes at the Guardian. “On 27 April this year, Michał Iwanowski left his house in Cardiff to walk to his home village of Mokrzeszów in Poland. Carrying British and Polish passports and wearing a T-shirt bearing the word ‘Polska,’ he began his 1,200-mile journey east, sticking as closely as possible to a straight line he had drawn on a map. Over 105 days, it would take him through Wales, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic. Along the way, Iwanowski posted a [diary] on Instagram,. …

“ ‘I saw the project as a way of thinking about the idea of home,’ he says, ‘not least because it would take me from the place I have lived in for 18 years to the place I come from. And I would be doing it at a time when Brexit had made the idea of home, identity and belonging a very politicised subject.’

“Iwanowski had been thinking about walking to Poland for several years, after being confronted in 2008 by graffiti scrawled on a wall in the Roath area of Cardiff, where he lives. ‘Go Home, Polish,’ it read. …

“He often appears in the images, sometimes as himself, sometimes as a generic wanderer lost in an unfamiliar landscape. In one self-portrait, he clings to a tree as if in danger from a threat just out of the frame. In another, he tries in vain to squeeze between two concrete posts – the immigrant’s experience distilled.

“Central to the project was his desire to meet people. It was not always easy. In France, he did not really connect with anyone. In Germany, an enraged local chased him off an allotment he had wandered on to to ask for directions.

“Most of the time, though, it was the sheer energy-sapping doggedness of the undertaking – ‘the drudgery and sweat’ – that tested him as he trudged wearily through often empty, unchanging landscapes. On 8 July, his Instagram post read: ‘On Wednesday I crashed and decided to throw in the towel.’ For a few hours, he sat at the side of a road, dehydrated and exhausted, having thrown his rucksack into the bushes in a tantrum. ‘It lasted a few hours,’ he wrote. ‘I got back up.’ …

“Iwanowski’s long walk ultimately proved both cathartic and life-affirming. … ‘I had become more cynical of late. The experience has banished that cynicism. People are OK. In fact, they are often gloriously generous.’ …

“ ‘Look, I know I am a white male and that I passed quickly through towns and villages, where I was not perceived as a threat. But my experience was so overwhelmingly positive that it has made me question everything I read in the media about the hardening of attitudes that Brexit has supposedly provoked.

I think that a few loud, extreme voices dominate the debate, but ordinary people are stoical or confused – and perhaps a little angry. But they are also decent.’ …

“Has this odyssey changed his way of thinking about home? ‘It confirmed something. I feel utterly at home walking in the landscape, wherever that landscape is. I don’t need to be told by a government, “This is your home.” The ground beneath my feet sanctifies my belonging in this world – not the passport given to me by a country.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Rebekah Welch, Missoulian
Two refugee children hurry to watch a soccer game at Fort Missoula in Montana.

I’m back volunteering with refugees and other immigrants, and it feels great. I took a hiatus to rethink my schedule after my sister was diagnosed with brain cancer. Now I’ll be doing only one day a week instead of three, assisting at a morning ESL class in a Providence resettlement agency and an afternoon class down the street. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile in retirement.

In today’s story, volunteers and staff at some unusually stable refugee programs in Montana feel the same. The article reminds me that my ignorance of much of the country has kept me from appreciating how every state has people with similar values.

In October, Kim Briggeman wrote at the Missoulian, “Montana’s lone resettlement office is just big enough to dodge the ax lowered by the [administration’s] slashed refugee cap, but small enough to escape the staff reductions others face.

“ ‘In Salt Lake City we were staffed to serve 600 arrivals (per year). Well, when you get half of that, you start losing staff,’ Patrick Poulin said in Missoula last week.

“Poulin is acting regional director of 13 International Rescue Committee [IRC] offices in seven Pacific Northwest states, and serves as executive director of the one that opened in Missoula two years ago. …

“The U.S. State Department has ‘pretty much told resettlement agencies’ that offices serving fewer than 100 refugees a year will be shuttered, Poulin added.

“Missoula’s IRC office received 115 refugees in fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30. Poulin said that was up from 78 in the first full year, and included a welcome but unexpected rush of 26 Congolese in July and another 23 Congolese and Eritreans in August. Those represent the top two months for refugee arrivals since the IRC began receiving them in August 2016. …

“The U.S. Secretary of State [announced] in mid-September a proposal to lower the number of refugees allowed into the country from a maximum of 45,000 to 30,000 for fiscal-year 2019. Both are fractions of the 110,000 set by President Barack Obama in his final months of office in 2016, a cap that was ratified by Congress. …

“ ‘This is not only the lowest goal in the history of the U.S. program — the average has been 95,000 — but puts U.S. resettlement, as a proportion of population, well behind Sweden, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom,’ noted a guest commentary co-authored by Helena mayor Wilmot Collins that appeared last Monday in The Hill. Collins [is] a refugee from Liberia. …

“Missoula Federal Credit Union (MFCU) … donates roughly 7.5 percent of its annual net income to community programs like these. …

“[Mary Poole of volunteer-reliant Soft Landing Missoula] said it was another reminder of how Missoula Federal and its president, Jack Lawson, have supported local refugee resettlement from the start.

“ ‘We’ve had, I think, three or four meetings with Jack where he’s asking, “What’s next? What can we do beyond money to help?” And of course there’s always an answer for that,’ she said.

“The IRC works with schools and organizations to set up classes such as English language and computer literacy courses to help refugee families integrate into the community. In the credit union’s case, it’s financial literacy support. …

“[Gwen Landquist of Missoula Fed] said a ‘fantastic’ family of Congolese has agreed to be taken under the wing of a financial mentor from MFCU for a year.

“ ‘The husband and wife met at a refugee camp and moved here in July with their three children and one of their mothers,’ she said in an email. …’ The husband speaks about seven languages, including English, and his kids are learning Spanish in school. He has taken some prep classes to prepare for attending school. He is currently employed and is eager to get a car so they can get to church and work.’ …

“A study that came out in July found that the 4,600 refugees and other immigrants in the Missoula region generate more than $26 million in tax revenue each year and contribute disproportionately to goods produced and services provided.”

More at the Missoulian, here.

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Look how happy my friend was after the 2012 ceremony that gave her US citizenship.

The other day the young lady above and I came to a funny realization about what I thought she told me 20-plus years ago when we first knew each other.

At that time, as a recent immigrant, her English was not as fluent as it is now, and I wasn’t as good a listener. As a result, I’ve been believing a bogus story for decades — and telling it to other people!

A naturalized US citizen originally from Brazil, my friend runs a cleaning business that has long benefited my family. Today she and I were chatting, and she happened to mention that she had studied nursing for two years. I was surprised. As the information sank in, I was even astonished.

“Wait! What? You spent two years studying nursing before you came here at age 14 with your boyfriend?”

It was her turn to be astonished. “I didn’t come here at 14. Oh, no! Something wrong with communication!”

“You didn’t leave home at 14 with your boyfriend, now your husband? The two of you didn’t come here through Mexico and work on a farm?!”

“No! Oh, my goodness, no!”

“But that’s my story about you!” I exclaimed. “I have told that story to everyone.”

How we laughed!

She said, “I think I know what I told you that made you think I came here when I was 14.”

“You mean I have to completely rethink my story of your life! Well, OK. Gee. I liked the old story.”

Laughing, she explained, “I met my boyfriend when we lived in Brazil. He came to America first, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come?’ So I got a visa and came. I was 18.”

“18! Well, I guess I’m glad you didn’t leave home at 14 after all.”

“My father was upset enough that I came here at 18. Imagine if I had come at 14! He would never speak to me again.

“I think I told you that there was an opening to become a citizen at that time, but to qualify, you had to be living and working in the orange groves for five years already. I wasn’t good with numbers when I told you that it meant I would have to be 14 when I started picking oranges. I should have said 13.”

Then I replied, thinking that if she had told me “13,” I really might have questioned the story more, “So you never came through Mexico?”

“No, we were in Florida. And the US had a special amnesty for people who worked in the orange groves for five years.”

“And the two of you never worked on a farm?”

“No! First I worked in a nursing home, but I really couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t understand what people were asking me for. The manager had to demonstrate everything.

“One time an old man asked me for water over and over and over, and when he finally tried using Portuguese, I just cried because I knew I hadn’t been helping him or the other old people when they needed help. So I went and put an ad in the newspaper for cleaning houses. That’s how it started.”

She had some other great stories about misunderstandings in English and we laughed a lot. Now everything is cleared up.

(I hope.)

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Photo: Elissa Nadworny/NPR  
Cathy Meaney (right), a volunteer with International Neighbors, has befriended an Afghan refugee family in Charlottesville, Va.

Here’s a story of how one person can make a big difference. The one person I’m thinking of is a teacher who started a nonprofit to help refugees in Virginia. After launch, there was another “one person” and another and another.

In fact, quite a few kind Virginians were concerned to learn that refugees have to start taking care of their own needs in 90 days — a nearly impossible task in a strange place where you don’t know the language.

Elissa Nadworny has a report at National Public Radio (NPR).

“Here’s a number: 90. That’s how many days most refugees arriving in this country have before the basic resettlement money they get from the government runs out.

“But once that three months is over, there are still so many things recent arrivals need. That’s what Kari Miller saw over and over as a teacher in the public schools in Charlottesville, Va.

“In her classes, students who had recently arrived in the U.S. as refugees were struggling with all kinds of problems, like serious dental issues, or a lack of winter clothes or just the challenge of adjusting to life and school in a new land and a strange language. …

“She asked her principal for permission to take children to clinics, to buy them winter coats, to go home and meet their families. … Seeing them every day at school gave her an idea: Connect these families to their Charlottesville neighbors.

“Working out of her garage, Miller started the nonprofit International Neighbors. That was two years ago, and the organization has now grown to more than 200 volunteers. Many of them work full-time jobs but are ready to jump in to help families in that crucial period after the government aid runs out. …

“There are so many questions: Where can I get a car? Is school closed today? How do I turn on my shower? And, please, help me fill out all this paperwork!

“Paperwork, that’s the real currency in the United States, says Liza Fields, a member of International Neighbors’ board. … Fields helps refugees fill out those many, many forms — mostly for medical care but also dental work, school needs and, of course, paying bills. …

“The No. 1 request refugees make of International Neighbors is for a car. That’s usually followed closely by another related request: driving lessons. The organization provides money for lessons. But some volunteers like Helga Hiss are willing and able to give lessons. That, says Kari Miller, is the sweet spot. …

“Last fall, Hiss started giving driving lessons to a woman named Neegeeta, who moved to Charlottesville with her family from Afghanistan about 2 1/2 years ago.

” ‘It was very, very difficult life,’ Neegeeta says as her 18-month-old son, Musadiq, crawls into her lap. She asked that we use only her first name in order to protect family members who remain in Afghanistan.

“That first year in the U.S. was so hard, Neegeeta says, that they thought about moving back to Afghanistan. She felt isolated. She was working on her English, taking care of her three children, and dependent on a bus transfer to get her to appointments. …

“But, month by month, things got better. Her husband got a good job. The family got a car. They moved into an apartment downtown.

“Neegeeta credits much of this newfound confidence to volunteers like Hiss, who she says helped her feel welcome as she drove around her new city, laughing — and praying — in Hiss’s Toyota Camry.

“Those lessons, Neegeeta says, changed everything. Gave her freedom.”

Read about the nonprofit’s varied programs — including the one that pairs Charlottesville and refugee families who have similar characteristics — at NPR, here.

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The United States still has a primarily throwaway culture and has not caught on yet to the Dutch “repair café” concept or Swedish notions about a mall for recycling.

Which is why it probably took a New American to notice that there was a need.

As Isaiah Thompson reports at WGBH radio, “It isn’t entirely clear from looking through the big windows facing Dorchester Avenue, in the Field’s Corner neighborhood, what the business is.

“The only advertising is an inauspicious plastic sandwich board reading ‘Repair Service: From $30 and Under 30 Minutes, Walk-in Welcome.’

“Inside is a large, room, with electronic equipment stacked in bins along the wall and lying in piles around the floor, and a few guys hunched over cheap plastic tables. But what they’re doing is as much a fine craft as it is hi-tech.

“They’re fixing cell phones.

“These guys don’t work for Apple or Samsung, or any manufacturers. That’s the whole point.

“ ‘I’m not officially sanctioned by the manufacturer,’ explains Quang Le, who, with his friend and business partner Minh Phan, started this scrappy repair shop in 2015.

The shop, says Le, ‘exists because there’s a need, and they don’t satisfy it.’ …

“The need he’s talking about is ubiquitous: cracked smartphone screens.

“Samsung screens can cost hundreds of dollars to replace. iPhone screens can cost an Apple customer around $150. …

“ ‘When they come to my store it’s like 80 bucks … Wouldn’t you rather go to the store down the block? we do it in like five minutes!’

“Born in Vietnam, Le came to the United States as a foreign student when he was sixteen. ..

“Where most of us see broken glass, Quang saw opportunity. …

“Le realized that by teaching himself this one, super-difficult skill: separating the broken glass from working screens — he could get an edge – and make money.

“He and his partner Phan hired some friends. They bought heavy-duty glue-warming tables from China. They built a dust-proof chamber out of metal. And they taught themselves by watching Youtube videos – and by trial and error. …

“ ‘Like, we broke so many screens – like we broke probably hundreds of them, trying to do it,’ Le chuckles.” Read more here and see what ambition Le wants to tackle next.

Hat tip: The International Institute of New England, on twitter.

Photo: Isaiah Thompson/WGBH News
Quang Le has built a business doing phone repairs the tech giants would rather not bother with.
 

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The museum now offers free family admission to new citizens.

The magnificent collections of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have gotten out of reach for many people as admission on most days has escalated. So it was with great interest that I read at the MFA website about a generous program for one deserving group of people: New Americans.

“Starting July 1, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), [began welcoming] newly naturalized U.S. citizens living in Massachusetts with complimentary one-year family memberships through a new program called MFA Citizens — the first of its kind in the country. …

“Engaging new citizens is part of the MFA’s ongoing efforts to build a more inclusive community of visitors, volunteers, staff and supporters, fostering the next generation of museum-goers and professionals that reflects the region’s changing demographics. …

“New citizens can sign up for the program by showing a copy or photo of their naturalization certificates at any MFA ticket desk within one year of their ceremony.

“In addition to free admission to the MFA for one year for two adults and unlimited children (ages 17 and under), discounts on programs, shopping, parking and dining, and invitations to member events, the MFA Citizens membership includes a special in-person welcome packet in a custom-designed tote bag. Included in the packet [is] information about upcoming exhibitions and programs — available in Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Portuguese, the most common non-English languages spoken at home in Boston. On-site signage in these languages will also be placed at the MFA’s Huntington, Fenway, and Schools and Groups entrances to encourage enrollment. …

“The Museum will work with Project Citizenship, the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement and Boston Public Library to raise awareness of the MFA Citizens program among the approximately 25,000 immigrants who are expected to go through the naturalization process across the Commonwealth within the next year. …

“In addition to hosting ESL classes and conversation groups, Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square and 24 neighborhood branches house Immigrant Information Corners, which provide information about resources and services available to help advance the well-being of the city’s immigrant residents.”

They don’t put this initiative in terms of the current controversies swirling around immigration, but to me it feels like an institution taking a positive stand in a troubling climate. I hope it will catch on.

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Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Attorney Elizabeth Read led a session at “Know Your Rights Day” at Boston International Newcomers Academy, a high school.

The lawyer in the photo above is someone I met in April, when we were both volunteering in a Jewish Vocational Service class for Haitians learning English. I was surprised to see her picture the very next day in the Boston Globe, doing a related kind of volunteer work. She certainly has found multiple ways to serve.

Evan Allen wrote, “Attorney Elizabeth Read stood before the classroom full of teenage immigrants at Boston International Newcomers Academy [and] explained their rights if they are ever detained by an immigration official.

“ ‘You have the right to make a phone call,’ she told them Friday afternoon, as their teacher translated into Spanish.

If you are detained, they can take your cell. You must memorize phone numbers. It’s hard! But you must.’ …

“The talks were organized by the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project and conducted by volunteer lawyers. …

“The PAIR Project has trained more than 300 lawyers across the state, and delivered 250 presentations to 10,000 people in community centers, health centers, churches, and schools. …

“ ‘I feel sad,’ said 15-year-old Alvaro … ‘I’m with my dad here, and at any minute, immigration could come and there’s nothing we can do.’

“All the students were given red cards to hand to immigration authorities that outline their rights, including the right to remain silent and to refuse to allow authorities to enter their homes. Alvaro said feeling prepared was a relief. …

“[Headmaster Tony] King said he has tried to reassure students by explaining their rights, reminding them that politicians in Massachusetts support immigrants, and talking to Muslim girls who wear head scarves about what to do if someone becomes aggressive. He gave them numbers to call — including his own — if they need help. …

“Sowda Roble, a 16-year-old Somali refugee wearing a sparkling silver headscarf and a Red Sox shirt, said through a translator that America is a country where ‘every opportunity — education, everything — is available.’

“She arrived here from a refugee camp in February 2016 with her mother and two brothers; four other siblings and her father stayed behind. …

“ ‘I know what it feels like to be in a refugee camp, and wait for hope. It hurts. [All of a sudden,] you are told the hope dies.’ Sowda started to cry. She had walked for days through the desert to the refugee camp, people dying around her, she said.

“The Know Your Rights presentation from the attorney, she said, was helpful. And she still loves America. The people ‘have good hearts.’ ”

More at the Globe, here.

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