How the other half lives

12 Jul

I’m teaching English to migrant worker teens this summer. Last summer, I taught English to Somali refugee teens who’d been resettled here after years in refugee camps throughout Africa, largely in Kenya. Both of these teaching jobs take place in the students’ homes.

My house is late 19th century, their homes are apartments in late 19th century/early 20th century buildings. There is so much difference between our lives and our homes, and I think about the days of Jacob Riis and other social reformer-types who were aghast at the living conditions of the poor in the cities of New England and simply showed photos or drawings on whistlestop tours around the country to raise money for social programs and what not. And I wonder how much has really changed.

Today, in 2011, I go to a renovated (vinyl siding, carpet, smoke detectors) 19th century apartment where about twenty migrant farm workers — mostly men, but also women and children — are sleeping on the floor after a nine hour day of picking vegetables and tobacco in the hot sun. They have a fridge, and a stove, and a television, but not enough chairs or matresses for everyone. And after all that hard work, the teens come into one of the (totally unfurnished) bedrooms to learn English for a few hours. They get these English classes from the state, but they’re only for the school-aged teens, and they pay for their own rent, healthcare, food, etc. And when the season changes, they migrate to another part of the country so they can keep working.

And last year, one of my students was in a two-family house built in 1901 that housed an enormous blended Somali family. A father of 9 whose wife had died in Somalia and his second wife (“auntie” to the kids) who’d had 2 more with another on the way. They’d been shuffled from camp to camp in Africa and shuffled here to the US. The refugee organization that brought them here provided some sort of services, but they lived with one battered couch, one mattress or crib per room (which children shared), a kitchen, and (of course) a tv. The girl I was teaching in this house didn’t know how to read or write in Somali (or Arabic) and had been placed into an all-English 10th grade classroom, because that’s how old she was. The younger kids were doing much better in school, in typical 19th, 20th, and 21st century immigrant fashion.

What’s different from Riis’ day? The television? That’s just the 21st century form of the newspaper, especially for the Spanish speakers who have Spanish language programming (a’ la immigrant presses of the past). At the same time, just like in Riis’ day, immigrants come here for a better life. From my very comfortable life, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that sleeping cheek and jowl next to someone on the floor and picking fruit in the blazing sun for nine hours a day is a better life. Or that slogging through mounds of snow to get to the schoolbus while wearing flowing scarves and headcoverings is a route to a peaceful existence. But I know those things are so.

Not everyone is going to make it; not everyone who immigrates to this country is going to achieve the American dream and make life better for themselves and the country, but most are. And not every native-born American is going to do so, either — there was an article in the paper today about the black sheep son of a prominent political family who’d tested positive for drugs while out on bail for a car crash that seriously wounded someone. But these kids that I’m teaching English to have so much drive, so much hope, and so much potential to be part of this great melting pot of ours; it’s a powerful reminder of what a special country we live in, and how so many people from around the world have made it such an amazing place, even if (or maybe especially if) they have to sleep on the floor for a while en route to a better life.

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