Bridge of Understanding
by Denise Doty
After reading a few articles recently on the subject of immigration, as an American, I felt embarrassed and thus feel compelled to write this article. When people migrant from other countries they have many hurdles to overcome, from finding a place to live/work to learning English. I knew about these hurdles and have even helped many immigrants confront these challenges, but what I didn’t know, what I didn’t realize, was what else they had to endure and this sadden me.
Many schools, state organizations and non-profit businesses throughout Minnesota spend time, energy and money helping immigrants with their new life here. There are resources that offer financial literacy, tutoring in math, English, computers, finding jobs, drug prevention, homeownership, and help for those that have been tortured. Over 32 different languages are represented by these organizations. These resources help significantly in dealing with many of the issues that immigrants face. Of this fact, I am proud, but there is one thing missing, education of Americans on immigrants.
If you spend any time talking to immigrants you quickly learn that they love the U.S. but you also learn that the U.S. with all its opportunities and freedoms isn’t perfect. Many immigrants have had to deal with Americans being ignorant about the world. I have a young friend from Tajikistan that I am sure every new person she meets asks her where that is. She just smiles and explains that it used to be part of the Soviet Union. But it is more than the lack of geographical education that makes life stressful. It is the lack of empathy, lack of understanding and malicious comments by children as well as adults. “Go back to your country. You don’t belong here!” has been directed at more than one immigrant.
Each year many immigrants come to the U.S. and are helped. Young immigrant students are given backpacks full of supplies, teachers are trained as to how to instruct non-English speaking students and interpreters are hired. However, there is a key component still missing. It is the component that would fight prejudice, tear down discrimination, destroy hate and build a bridge of understanding that will lead to new friends and peace. The missing piece is educating American-born students to understand, to empathize and to welcome their immigrant classmates. We need to develop what experts call “Cultural Competency”.
The last three years I have worked, in addition to my translating, as a substitute paraprofessional. I have traveled to various schools assisting where needed. On several occasions, I worked at Lake Elmo Elementary. I began to notice things there that I hadn’t seen at other schools. I noticed that I heard more than English being spoken. I heard Spanish and I’m guessing Hmong, from both students and teachers alike. One day I was substituting in a kindergarten class, all the children were called to sit in a circle for sharing time. The teacher began talking about a holiday, a holiday that was celebrated by Hmongs. I sat in astonishment listening to the teacher’s explanation of the holiday and watched as the Hmong children proudly talked and answered questions asked by their peers. There was no hate, no discrimination, and no prejudice. I was watching one of the first bricks of the bridge of understanding being laid and the beginning of new friendships blossoming.