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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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Photo: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media
In a small Colorado farm town, immigrants accept America’s least popular jobs. Now the town is helping them gain citizenship.

When you hear that immigrants are important to a farm town, you probably think of farm labor. But farm towns, like other small towns in America, struggle to find workers for many grueling jobs citizens don’t want.

Now the town of Brush, Colorado, is offering help to its new residents to become citizens themselves.

This Harvest Public Media report by Luke Runyon, broadcast on National Public Radio, explains.

“At the public library in the rural Morgan County town of Brush, Colo., Marissa Velazquez welcomes her students to class. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and the day marks the halfway point in Velazquez’s class, a 10-week crash course on American history, civics and English.

“Nearly all of the students work in either meatpacking or dairying. Everyone in it has the same goal: become an American citizen. In two hours, Velazquez runs through voting rights, the legislative process and some grammar tips. …

“Morgan County has anchored its local economy to agriculture. A meatpacking plant, cheese factory, sugar beet processing plant and large dairy farms provide plentiful yet grueling jobs that require little proficiency in English, just hard manual labor. That has made the rural county a magnet for migrating immigrants and refugees. It now holds sizable Somali, Mexican, Ethiopian, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran populations. …

“In some smaller towns … fear has spurred some to take steps to go from green card holders to fully fledged citizens.

“The number of people who applied for U.S. citizenship rose across the country in 2016. And while there are no definitive data for the first part of 2017, there are small indications that the same trend could be continuing this year.

“To become naturalized, applicants are tested with a series of questions about the U.S. They are given a dictation exam and an interview, most often in English.

” ‘That’s why we get to practice listening skills, writing skills, reading, so that they’re ready for when they go in for their interview to become a citizen,’ Velazquez says.

” ‘I never thought I would teach the class, because I took this class as a student,’ says Velazquez, who became a naturalized citizen in 2016.

“Citizenship classes are pretty standard in some parts of the country, often offered by nonprofit groups and immigration law firms. What makes this one unique is its size. In 2015, 10 people finished it. In 2016, just five. This year, Velazquez has a class of 21 students. In a rural area like Morgan County, that is huge.” More.

One thing you can say about immigrants who take those tough jobs: they work hard. I believe that the country is strengthened by people like that deciding to become part of it.

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Photo: Anna Mindess
One of Ba-Bite’s colorful salads: red cabbage with mung bean sprouts, dried figs, arugula and feta and the creamiest hummus. The restaurant is like a welcoming family for immigrant workers.

Lisa, who lives in Oakland, California, put this nice story about an Oakland restaurant on Facebook. If I ever go to Oakland, I’m going to visit Ba-Bite in person.

Anna Mindess writes at KQED Food, “They’ve won accolades for their silken hummus and rainbow of organic salads, but for the owners of Oakland’s Ba-Bite, the most precious thing the almost two-year old restaurant can display right now may be the Sanctuary Restaurant poster on their front door. …

“Ba-Bite is Hebrew for ‘at home.’ Even though most of Mica Talmor and Robert Gott’s employees don’t speak Hebrew, (besides English, they speak Spanish, Maya, and Arabic) they completely understand the concept. The majority of them — like most food service workers in the Bay Area — are immigrants. After walking across deserts at night, being shortchanged or abused in other restaurants where they could not complain, working at Ba-Bite feels like they have found a family.

“Russell Chable manages the kitchen at Ba-Bite and is responsible for set up, prepping, and cooking. He grew up in a tiny town in Mexico’s Yucatan. … He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up to his lead position in Ba-Bite.

“After eight years away from home, Russell missed his mom. Sure, he would talk to her on the phone every week, but he wanted to see her face. So this determined young man decided to build his parents a cell tower so that he could FaceTime with his mom. Six months ago, he made contact with a man back in Mexico who outlined what would be needed: laptops, cables and a cell tower. Russell had his uncle check out the man and then sent money. Now he uses FaceTime to talk to his mom every week, and his parents have a small business renting out computer and internet time. …

“Fatima Abudamos is from Jordan and works as cashier. She also holds the distinction as Ba-Bite’s best falafel shaper. As she stuffs the green balls with sheep’s milk feta, she says, ‘This is an amazing place, just like a family. I’ve worked here almost two years. Mica is not like a boss, she’s more like a friend. She doesn’t scream if you make a mistake; she explains things. I feel safe here; it’s my second family.’ …

““We pay all of our workers well,” says Gott. “Partly because we know how expensive it is to live here. My experience is that more often than not, immigrants are working multiple jobs or longer hours, and forgo taking time off at all costs, as they want to or need to make money. …

“[Food runner Kasandra Molina says,] ‘This space here doesn’t feel like a workplace, it feels like home. We all get along. They care about our opinions and feelings. They don’t treat us just as employees; it’s more like a family.’ ”

More at KQED, here.

Are you in Oakland? Check out Ba-Bite at 3905 Piedmont Ave. Phone: (510) 250-9526

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