by Ben LaBouve, French tutor
Along with being one the French tutors in the center, I have also been lucky enough to hold a work study position off-campus at the Tacoma Community House. Instead of tutoring French, I am a literacy advocate, helping native English speakers improve their reading and writing skills. I also get to help out in the ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. The best part about working with our ESL clients is that in a single classroom, many cultures and languages are present. The students become friends and overcome the language barrier by using English, the language they are learning. Many of the students are immigrants who have come to Tacoma seeking to better their lives and the lives of their families and some are refugees who are escaping systematic violence, oppression and political unrest. As a social service agency, not only do we offer English courses, we also provide naturalization and employment services to help ease the transition into American life and help them move towards economic independence. Being able to put a face to such a hot-button issue as immigration and hearing the deeply personal stories behind them is enriching to me both personally and socially – it inspires me to take that extra step and to try to enact positive changes for them.On behalf of Tacoma Community House, I had the opportunity to participate in Washington State’s Immigrant and Refugee Legislative Day that took place on February 11th. We took a group of about 50 of our ESL/Immigration clients and headed down to visit the capitol, however this was not your average field trip! My role in the event was to tour a group of students around and to meet with different senators and representatives to advocate for improving services that affect them and other immigrants in the state. The day focused on how productive and vital immigrants are to the community and to nation. Many refugees that have come to the US have supported US forces abroad, providing translation and support to Special Forces operations. Once they have come to the United States, they find it difficult to be self-sufficient on programs already in place, mainly because their basic needs are not being met.It is important to provide access to education services so that they are able to succeed; immigrants have one of the lowest graduation rates because of the lack of funding to ESL services – about 25.8% of students drop-out. A total of 9% of Washington’s student were enrolled in said programs, but only 1.2% of the state funds are allowed towards multilingual services. Another prominent issue is naturalization. Last year, our state cut funding to naturalization program resources by 47%, making it increasingly more difficult (and expensive) for these immigrants to become citizens. The US is foundationally a nation of immigrants, and often we don’t make it as readily accessible to them.
But I digress. In my group I had an older couple from Ukraine, Olga and Mykhailo, and a woman from Mexico, Jessie, who has been living in the US for more than 25 years. Each of them had a unique story which they disclosed to members of the senate. In our first meeting with a Pierce County representative, Olga explained that they had fled from Kiev, Ukraine because of increasing violence and political instability. She also expressed that her family had become divided; only one of her two children, her son, was able to come to the US with them and her daughter was left in Kiev. I asked how often they were able to get into contact with her, and she told me that often, they would go months, even years without hearing from her, with fear that she had been taken or injured by rebel forces or worse. Despite this, Olga remains optimistic. She knows she is doing everything she can to bring her daughter to the US and has faith in the work we are doing within our agency. Jessie explained to the senator that despite her extended stay in the US, she has still not been able to find a consistent job and depends on funding from the state in order to survive. She recalled her experience of crossing the border from Mexico and entering into Oregon, as an “obscuridad sin fin,” or a darkness with no end. The violence she endured on her odyssey, according to her, was more bearable than being in country that every day turns a blind eye to her needs. She reflected that meeting with the congresistas was a really important experience to her, “being able to put a face to a problem, to recognize that we are real people affected by decisions they make.”
After our meetings we gathered on the steps of the capitol for a rally. A good number of agencies and organizations that provide resources to immigrants in Pierce and King County were present. We grabbed our rally signs and cheered for the speech being made, many by immigrants themselves who work as policymakers for the state, who emphasized their needs and animated their hopes.
The speech that impacted me the most was made by an Iranian man who said” We are all gathered here today for the same reason. We have so many different languages, united by a single voice.” As a French tutor who just happens to be a Spanish major, language is important to me. No matter if you are using a Latin based language, an oral based language from sub-Saharan Africa or Mandarin characters, we have many different ways of expressing the same thing: we are all human beings who are equal and worthy. What my experience at the capitol taught me is that we have a responsibility to be good neighbors. No matter what language you speak, where you come, or what your culture is, the moment we stop learning from each other is the moment that we lose the war on equality.