| By Tiffany Esteb |
“Yolanda, tell us what you did today. Did anything exciting happen today?” the teacher asks.
She stumbles on her thoughts, trying to remember the meaning of the word ‘exciting.’
”It’s like emotion? No,” she laughs under her breath, “no time for emotion.”
Inside the English classes at the College of Mount Saint Vincent Institute for Immigrant Concerns in Midtown Manhattan, new immigrants to the United States begin the daunting task of learning their new language as they try to assimilate into New York City.
The walls of the classroom are adorned with a map of the US and a map of the world. There is also a poster for the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. A workbook is opened to a page showing pictures of American coins and bills with spaces for them to identify which is which.
The students take turns recounting the alphabet around the room. Some rapidly recite the letters, but have trouble pronouncing certain ones, like ‘x.’ Others struggle through, not yet able to remember the order of the letters. Here, a student with a Ph.D. from Kosovo learns alongside someone from Guinea who, before enrolling, had never gone to school a day in his life.
Since the Institute’s beginning, Donna Kelsh, the founder and head administrator, recalls waves of students from Russia, Bosnia, Haiti, and so forth. Presently Guinea, Burma, and the Dominican Republic are among the countries that have a large number of students enrolled there.
About a third of the students at this very unusual school are political refugees and asylum seekers, which means that the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs has decided that they hold a “well-founded fear of persecution” because of their political involvements back home. For them, the classes are free, and these students reportedly learn very fast. However, most of the students who don’t fall into those categories also struggle financially, so the fee is kept low. The institute relies on government funding and individual donations, but it’s difficult for them to keep the programs running.
One West African woman recently told Kelsh, “My family is fine, we’re all fine. I just need a job.” Her spoken English is very good, but having never gone to school before, she attends a pre-literacy class, as well as the regular classes. She wants to work in a boutique, like she did in her native country. “She’s very elegant and smart, but you have to be able to, where ever you work, fill out something,” Kelsh warns. “We will encourage her, but her desire to do this… the economic realities right now are such that it will be very difficult for her.” Adding to this difficulty, employers often prefer to hire people who have previous work experience in the US. Although they may have had a successful work life in their former country, replicating it here can take a long time.
Rabi Deh, 22, came from Senegal three years ago. Dressed in a dark skirt and a fitted gray blazer, she is genial but guarded. Her parents brought her to New York so that she could have an operation on her heart. It was successful, and since then her health has progressively gotten better.
Her father is a street vender, and her mother braids hair in a salon. Deh initially braided hair as well, but it required that she stand for long periods with her arms up, which was difficult with her heart condition. Now she works part-time doing home health care, but at 140 dollars per week, it’s not enough to help her parents pay the rent and bills.
Like some of the other students, Deh never received a primary school education. Her grandmother had health problems when she was younger, and the family needed her to stay home to take care of her. Despite this, she’s been doing well at the Institute since she began two years ago. “They’re good,” says Deh about her teachers. “They help me with the letters.” She wants to eventually be a nurse, but it’s a long road. First she must finish at the English school, and then get her GED, to begin nursing school.
“(Before I came) I’m thinking America is nice. Everything is here. I’m thinking when you come you’re gonna have a good job, (laughs) something like that. And I was thinking about my surgery too. Maybe I’m going to die, I didn’t know.”
“Tell me, what did you do today, Issa?”
“Today I went again in the employment agency.”
“I went to the employment agency.”
“Yes… To ask again after my job.”
“I ask about my job. What did they say to you?”
“They say nothing again.”
Issa Sidibe, 37, is tall and thin, with almond shaped eyes. He has a teaching degree, and taught biology and chemistry in a middle school in his native Mali before coming to New York a year ago. Now he is hoping to find a job stocking shelves in a store, or doing deliveries.
The institute often tries to find jobs for the students. Harriet Flehinger, 64, a volunteer at the school who has a business background, advises students on searching for jobs, along with teaching a conversation class. She has connections at one of the local Fairway Market grocery stores. “We can say to them, the people we send are all legal, have green cards, have social security cards, we have met them, we have gotten to know them, and they’re making an effort to learn English, so they’re better than people you’re going to get who fill out an application online.” Fairway Market, a grocery chain, hires many immigrants, and many like Sidibe, speak French. Flehinger is confident that after he improves his English, he could be a cashier in the front of a retail store because of his friendly personality. He eventually hopes to go back to school so that he can work in a hospital. But, again, first he must finish learning English.
Since moving to New York, Sidibe had a job as a dishwasher for three weeks, but the fumes from the cleaning solvents they used gave him respiratory problems. He took time off, and it went away, but when he went back he had trouble breathing again, so he had to quit.
He also had a job at a shoe store in Brooklyn. They paid him under the table, 300 dollars per week for 50 to 60 hours. However, he is legal to work and prefers to pay taxes and work legitimately. Immigrants who don’t yet speak English well often find it hard to find jobs inside the regular economy, even though they may have a green card.
Like many African countries, Mali’s GDP is a fraction of that of the US. And like so many of America’s ancestors, some from this region brave the difficulty of learning a new language and culture in the hopes of finding a better life. A monumental task in any age, but exacerbated by today’s economic situation. “If you live outside the United States, you think that the United States is a country for liberty, a country for more money, a beautiful country,” says Sidibe. “Everybody like to come in the United States if you live in the other countries. But if you come, you see other things, because the United States is very, very difficult. I think here in America, a few people get everything. America is for a few people.”
A week later, Sidibe has found a job at a new opening of a women’s clothing store chain in the Bronx. He found it from a friend who works at the same chain in another location. He’s worked several days already, and he is worried because they haven’t had him fill out an application form yet. The owner says that he will pay him in two weeks. There are around fourteen others working with him, from various places; Sudan, Ghana, Senegal, Honduras, Dominican Republic. Everybody works eleven hours. And they find out day to day whether they will be needed the following day. No one knows if they are going to be working there permanently yet. “He say nothing, he just say work, work. So I’m not sure. He needs people now, because he just opened, so it’s a lot of work.”
He is hoping this job will last for the time being. Despite the long hours, not to mention being quite overqualified, he is content that there are no toxic fumes. And this job, he believes, will be on the books. But until he is certain, he is keeping an eye out for something else. ”Now I do this to pay my bills. It’s very difficult. You pay for rent, you pay bill for phone, for everything, you need a job. But I don’t like to do this job for a long time. I don’t like.”
- – -
Tiffany Esteb is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of CQ Magazine.