Unlocking the American Dream

by Catherine Cheney:

Clenching Styrofoam cups of steaming beverages, three men from Iraq, Somalia, and Guinea returned from their coffee break and prepared for further instruction from their English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.

The teacher asked what new words they had learned over the break.

“Chocolate milk,” responded the Iraqi, just before the Somali answered, “Black coffee!” Eager to impress, the third student added, “Chocolate tea!” The teacher tilted her head in confusion, and then responded, “Oh, hot chocolate!”

The room promptly repeated in unison.

“Hot choc-o-late.”

This was not in an average classroom, but rather, in the office of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven, Connecticut. Resettlement agencies like IRIS assist refugees with the material needs and logistical challenges that they face immediately after arriving in the United States, needs ranging from apartment rent to medical exams. Over 20 percent of IRIS’ $700,000 annual budget is also reserved for a more long-term need: education. This class, where refugees learn how to translate their new surroundings, is an important part of their welcome to the United States.

“This is the land of opportunity, right?” said Chris George, executive director of IRIS. “We all know that everyone does not have the same access to opportunities in this country, but we also know that English education is key to at least having a chance at those opportunities.”

This commitment to English education for refugees is enshrined in the official resettlement policies of the U.S. government. Around 10 percent of IRIS’ budget comes from the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Match Grant Program, through the department of Health and Human Services. The funds come with a host of regulations. Refugees are expected to achieve economic independence within 180 days of their arrival. As part of reaching this goal, resettlement agencies are mandated to refer refugees to English courses.

While this seems a logical demand for someone beginning a new life in the United States, government acknowledgement of the centrality of English to life in America is rare—the United States does not even recognize English as its official language. For years the nation has remained divided over whether immigrants should learn English upon arrival in America. The case of refugees, however, is decided, not divided. And so, immediately upon arrival, refugees begin their crash course in English, aiming for at least some proficiency within 180 days.

Immersion and Independence

George explained that IRIS is unique in its emphasis on education. Refugees do not have complete control over where they are resettled, but those who are sent to New Haven benefit especially from English education offered at the agency and throughout the city.

While their parents learned the names of different beverages in IRIS’ adult English literacy program, five-year-old Abdrushid and two-year-old Fortun played in a room just across the hall. The young siblings from Somalia ate strawberries for the first time, plucking at the seeds, sucking on the stems, and sounding out the syllables as they began to learn their own vocabulary: straw-ber-ry.

Older refugee children do not learn their first words under IRIS’ auspices; instead, they are enrolled directly in New Haven schools. This total immersion makes for a tough transition.

Fourth grader David Yanes shrugged as he hunched over a chair in the second-floor hallway of Saint Rose of Lima School in New Haven. “Sometimes I wish I never lived in Cuba,” he said in Spanish under his breath.

David was rosy-cheeked from recess, where he had just played handball with his classmates. He loved handball, he said, because the rules made sense. He explained how his teacher had told him to rest his head on the desk while the other students took part in the “scissors, rock, papers” game, because he had not understood the instructions.

David emigrated from Cuba to New Haven in August 2008 along with his parents and brother José. The Cuban government had accused the family of refusing to support the communist revolution, so the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program recognized a “well-founded fear of persecution” that qualified them for resettlement in the United States. They were evacuated and resettled in New Haven, where they connected with IRIS.

IRIS cannot adopt the burden of bringing all refugees like David to full English fluency; its courses function only as a starting point for the longer process of language acquisition. The IRIS English teacher must teach refugees of varying linguistic levels and native languages, all in the same three-hour class period.

But Erika Iverson, a program specialist at Church World Service, heralds IRIS’ program as a successful model of this initial language education. Church World Service is one of 10 overarching voluntary resettlement organizations in the United States that welcome refugees and link them with smaller, local resettlement agencies.

“The end goal [is] that these refugees are able to become self-sufficient and have control over their lives,” Iverson, who monitors resettlement in Connecticut, said. “English education is an important part of that.”

The end goal is quickly approaching for Davíd’s parents, who will reach their 180th day in America in early February.

Trapped, Atrapado

Abdrushid and Fortun have many words left to learn, but every new word means progress beyond just vocabulary.

“When Abdrushid came, he had major anger issues. He was violent, destructive all the time,” said Angela Sterpka, a psychology major from Southern Connecticut State University volunteering for IRIS’ childcare program. “He has improved a lot. Now he is so sweet.”

Sterpka believes an expanded vocabulary provides Abdrushid with a new set of tools to fine-tune his ideas and feelings, but she added that he requires more advanced language abilities before he can share the strong emotions he now expresses without words.

Refugees like Abdrushid come to the United States seeking safety and access to opportunities few other countries can offer, but their often-traumatic pasts remain trapped within.

Norine Polio, an ESL teacher at East Rock Global Studies Magnet School, sees this every day with the refugee children in her class. “Their lack of vocabulary skills can make it hard for them to share their stories with me,” Polio explained. “Some of these students have experienced things that their classmates could never understand or relate to.”

In the second grade classroom at Saint Rose of Lima, another teacher, Mary Ellen Masiello, called students one by one to the front of the room to place stickers representing germs on a large poster.

“My! My! My!” yelled José, Davíd’s younger brother, impatient for his turn but unsure how to ask for it.

“My turn, my turn,” Masiello corrected patiently.

After class was dismissed, Masiello withdrew a red folder filled with work José had completed in class. Explaining that she did not speak Spanish, she asked me to translate the sentences etched beneath colored pencil drawings.

“What a beautiful house!” read the cluttered Spanish letters under a drawing of two red helicopters surrounding a blue house, casting a line down to the people inside who were reaching for the sky. On the next page, below more helicopters pulling struggling stick figures from a house, José had written, “I am José, please never forget me.”

Understanding for the first time what her student had written, Masiello was filled with questions. Perhaps José felt forced from Cuba because of a choice his parents made? Perhaps he felt scared in Cuba and eager to leave? Or maybe he felt trapped, here in New Haven, by his own inability to communicate? Regardless, he was worried of being forgotten, and she knew she had to make him feel acknowledged— and remembered—in class.

Masiello reserved one class period for students to ask José questions about Cuba, explaining that he could answer whichever questions he felt comfortable with.

While teachers do not generally allow Spanish in their classrooms at Saint Rose of Lima, many have implemented a mentor system so that students who speak two or three languages can translate for newcomers. Maria, one of the bilingual students in the second grade class, translated for José, explaining that he missed his friends, his dogs, everything about Cuba.

English? Easy.

As resettlement agencies enroll refugee children in schools where they are surrounded by English, the children tend to learn much more quickly than their parents—an acknowledged linguistic phenomenon in any environment. But for adult refugees, the task of catching up can seem nearly impossible, as they try to learn English while taking care of their children, finding employment, navigating their new surroundings, and attaining self-sufficiency before the government deadline.

Jeanne, 11, who participates in the IRIS afterschool literacy and tutoring program at East Rock, twirled dangling black braids as she described her adjustment coming to New Haven as a refugee two years ago. She said she did not know a word of English when she arrived but added with a sudden lift of her chin, “I am learning English much faster than my parents, because I am studying and reading a lot more than them.”

Though impressive, the children’s aptitude for English can cause problems at home, Iverson attested. “They excel at [English] and it can stress out parents because they do not understand,” she said.

David sat in the corner of the classroom practicing new words with an English language computer program. S-K-U-N-K. F-R-O-G. He spelled the words out patiently, occasionally stealing glances at the more exciting activities of his classmates.

David said that despite his frustrations fitting in at school, he is determined to learn English. And he is not shy to point out his progress. “I am definitely learning much more quickly than my parents,” he boasted.

His mother, Kattia Mendes Gonzalez, untangled the end of her wiry braid as she expressed—in Spanish—her frustrations with English.

“All the English that I had studied—I arrived here, and I was shocked and felt stupid!” Gonzalez said. “They talk very quickly.” Gonzalez studied the language throughout high school and college but did not learn enough to fully communicate in her new city.

“Many times I get stumped, I get blocked,” explained Gonzalez.

“In Cuba, I used to play, and my mother would say, ‘Come inside to study!’” Davíd laughed. “Now, I am teaching her!” He looked around for shapes or objects he could find and name. “Cross. Door. Flow-er. Wat-er foun-tain,” he said, sounding out syllables and slapping his knee with pride.

In an hour-long interview, his mother spoke just four words of English.

Housekeepers and Engineers

While Gonzalez lamented her limited English, she was ahead of many others. Soon after she arrived, IRIS referred her to the English courses at the New Haven Adult Education School because she was beyond the basic language level offered to most adult refugees. She attends courses every week with her husband, working hard to keep up with her boys.

Gonzalez said she hopes to improve her English in order to find work in the United States. She was a doctor in Cuba and realizes it will be difficult to obtain a license to practice in Connecticut. While it may be many years before she can translate her expertise into English, that is her ultimate goal.

As their 180th day draws nearer, Gonzalez and her husband soon will no longer receive financial support from IRIS. Ultimately, they will have to accept whichever jobs they are offered in order to support their family.

Gonzalez is not alone in this sacrifice. While many refugee children excel in English, the language barrier prevents many of their parents from obtaining the work for which they are otherwise qualified.

Magalys Lopez, a neighbor of the Yanes family, left Cuba with her husband and sons Rafael Vigoa, 22, and Javier Vigoa, 20, in April 2004. Lopez said her husband, who worked as a professor of engineering in Cuba, had written a letter along with other professors “expressing discontent of what was happening with the government.”

Her husband lost his job and could not find work again in Cuba. As a refugee arriving in America, he had to find employment—but he found it in different places than he was used to back home.

Javier was 15 when he arrived in New Haven as a refugee. He attended Hill Regional Career High School, where, despite having no prior knowledge of the language, he was immediately thrown into math, social studies, and science courses taught in English. He said that, while the experience was difficult, he knew learning English would be important for his future. He worked with IRIS to take advantage of after-school tutoring opportunities and watched American television programs with his older brother.

“The only thing you can do not knowing English is end up at McDonald’s or in a factory somewhere,” he said. Javier, who attends Gateway Community College and hopes to transfer to the University of Connecticut, is studying to become an engineer—the career field both of his parents left behind in Cuba.

Today, his mother is a housekeeper. His father works in a factory.

“It makes me proud that my boys speak such good English,” Lopez said. “That allows them to be free here. That is why I came here: to build a better future for them, even though I have to do simple work in housekeeping. They are learning English and they are learning independence.”

We Speak Spanish

On a crisp October evening, families entered the Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Fair Haven with saran-wrapped pans of food that they placed on tables adorned with flags from around the world.

The metal table beneath the Cuban flag stood empty at this international potluck dinner until José and Davíd entered in traditional Cuban dress, followed by their aunt and uncle, baby cousin, grandparents, and parents, all nine of whom live together in a modest Fair Haven home. The children in attendance, many of them first or second generation immigrants and refugees, danced and laughed, interacting in English, while parents spoke their native languages at the tables lining the room.

Chewing on chicharrones, or pork rinds, Luís Yanes, the father of José and Davíd, said he wants to ensure that his boys do not forget the Spanish language or their Cuban roots while they race ahead learning English.

“We help them remember their heritage with conversation, with communication, talking with our family in Cuba, getting together with other Cubans in New Haven, keeping articles of Cuban pride around our home,” he said. “You have to understand both cultures; you have to know what is good and bad about both.”

Despite a strong conviction among the Yanes-Gonzalez and Vigoa- Lopez family members that Cuban heritage is too strong to fade, there are signs that the boys are distancing themselves from their backgrounds as they continue their English education and cultural assimilation.

“José told me he wants to be called Joseph,” laughed Masiello from the desk of her second grade classroom. “He said, ‘Please Mrs. M, please call me Joseph.’ I think he wants to be American. I feel he wants to integrate himself here. New identity, new name.”

Gonzalez said she thinks it would be wonderful for her children to become fluent in English, and she is confident that they can reach that point soon, but she opposes adapting to American culture at the expense of losing Cuban identity.

“I want them to adapt here,” she said, “But I also want them to remember.”

Gonzalez is worried that her young sons are more at risk of losing their connection with Cuban culture than the Vigoa-Lopez boys, who came to America as teenagers. She meets frequently with Lopez to discuss how she can help them adjust to America without forgetting what brought them here in the first place.

“We Cubans are very patriotic, and we cannot forget Cuba: the food, the culture, the way we talk, the way we get together, the way we work hard, the way we are sincere,” Lopez said. “We like everything about Cuba except Fidel Castro, and we will always be Cuban.”

Lopez always prepares Cuban food and plays music the family used to listen to back home. When asked about the language abilities of her sons, Lopez responded: “My boys speak perfect English. That is their language. But the rule in the house: we speak Spanish.”

When refugees arrive in America, they are given keys to a new home and a new life. But unlocking the language barrier can take time, patience, and sometimes pain. In mandating English education as a step toward establishing life in America, the U.S. government demands a difficult process, both for children grappling with traumatic pasts and double identities and for parents struggling to find employment, unable to translate their expertise.

George insists that, while support gradually lessens as refugees become more independent, at IRIS there is never a “dramatic drop or cutoff in services.” Aiming to help refugees reach economic self-sufficiency by 180 days, resettlement agencies assist refugees in the job search, but linguistic independence often lags behind. The education process continues, though, word by word, as refugees gain the ability to truly realize the American dream.

Catherine Cheney is a junior Political Science and International Studies Double major in Trumbull College.