Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sharing stories

The city of Lewiston has undergone many changes over the past 25 years. Even more dramatic have been the ones that have occurred during the past five, or six years.

As someone who grew up in a neighboring community (Lisbon Falls), and with roots in the city (my maternal grandparents were part of the large French-Canadian migration to Lewiston, when the city was a textile capital), the positives are not lost on me. It’s exciting to be working in the community, and to have a part in coordinating training programs, and to be part of collaborative efforts, like the New Mainers Workforce Partnership-L/A. This partnership has been the catalyst behind these first two pilot programs assisting members of our communities for whom English is not their first language, and that desire to learn the types of skills that employers are looking for, so they can be successful in the American workplace.

Both Mark Schlotterbeck, one of our instructors during the program, and I, couldn’t help but appreciate that the city’s current mayor, Laurence Gilbert, attended the graduation ceremony, and was pleased to be there. Just a little more than six years ago, both Mark and I were two of close to 5,000 community members and others who gathered at Bates College to show support for the recent Somali immigrants who had been targeted by a group called World Church of the Creator. They had decided to seize upon a letter written by Lewiston’s mayor at the time, which had blamed many of the new immigrants for the city’s budget shortfalls, and for putting a strain on city resources.

[Mayor Gilbert addresses graduates and guests]

In 2003, Schlotterbeck was the city missionary to these newly-arrived immigrants to Lewiston, serving with the United Methodist Church. Both of us have discussed many of the positive changes that have taken place in relations between Lewiston’s newest residents, and many that are natives to the area. Obviously, having city officials like Mayor Gilbert and City Hall supportive of workforce efforts like this latest 140-hour training program bodes well for Lewiston’s continued growth, and long-term economic wellbeing.

One of the highlights of both of our graduations has been the stories that Schlotterbeck helped each graduate create, about where they’ve come from, some personal history, and their hopes and dreams as Americans. These stories have elicited very positive feedback and comments from all that have had the chance to read them.

[Businesses and members of the community review resumes and stories of graduates]

I’ve taken the liberty to share snippets of these, because it helps to dispel some of the misinformation that is still perpetuated by some in our community, as well as by others outside Lewiston/Auburn.

I count it a privilege to get to know the stories of people who have come to Lewiston by choice, and want to make their community a better place, and are an asset to the city. I share a few excerpts with blog readers.

One graduate’s story of arriving in the U.S., and moving to Lewiston:

When I first arrived in the United States, I came to Atlanta, Georgia. It was beautiful. I liked it. But when I needed to do something, everything was very hard because I didn’t speak English very well. If I needed to go to the store, I had to ask my neighbor, who was Sudanese. When I got to the store, I didn’t know how to say what I wanted. I had to look until I found it. It took a long time to find it, but now it is easy. I go to the right section in the store, and I find what I need. I keep learning.

The first work I had in the U.S. was housekeeping. It was in Atlanta. It was very hard. I cried every night because I didn’t speak English very well. I could not find any better job.

After that I moved to Maine and worked at L.L. Bean. I liked that work. I thought it was easy. I didn’t have to use all of my body, just my mind and hands. I loved that job, because I did something I could do and I was working. That made me happy.

While many of the first immigrants to settle in Lewiston were from Somalia, our program had representatives from four different countries, including this student, a former teacher, who comes to the area from Peru:

I worked in my country for a long time. I taught kindergarten for five years. When I worked in my country, my schedule was very busy and full time.

When I came to the United States, I didn’t speak English, but I am studying in this country. I have had good teachers and they have helped me.

I came last year on April 30. I traveled for fourteen hours. I was tired, but my husband’s brother cooked for us. I knew Paul worked in the River Restaurant. I knew his wife and daughter, but I always need help with speaking. I want to learn more English in this country.

I want to get a job soon.

We have this excerpt, from a Somali student, who came to America, one year ago. He speaks three languages, including English. His wife, an American, shared with me how hard he works to learn English, and about his passion for learning:

When I was a child, I lived in Djibouti with my family. My first language is Somali. But I learned French and Arabic in school. I liked my country, because I had a lot of friends. I liked to play with my friends.

My family had a little store. I helped my family.

I like America very much, because I got married on January 12, 2008, in Lewiston, Maine. My wife is an American from Georgia. I hope my children live in the U.S.A.

When I came to the United States, we landed at the airport in Washington, D.C. It was the first airport I saw in America. I said, “Wow!” It was a very big and beautiful airport.

My English was not good. I also had many friends. My friends spoke French, but we didn’t understand English. The employee asked questions. It was hard to answer the questions. My friends were scared, but it was OK for me. They answered in French, but the employee did not understand. Then he said, “Wait.”

I said to my friends, “Why are you afraid?” Then my friends said, “Stop, _______.” I said, “OK, but I’m not afraid. I understand. I will answer the questions.”

In my country when I had worked at a store, I was a cashier. I had keys to the store. Every morning I opened the door. I was responsible for the store before the boss came.

But now I would like to be an electrician. After I finish my GED, I need to go to school for two years to be an electrician. I hope to work in the office at the power company.

The following story excerpt is from a woman, who came to America, from Morocco. She hopes to open a restaurant, or bakery at some point, as she is a gifted cook and baker, not to mention, she lights up any room that she enters with her vivacious personality and warmth:

When I was a child I lived in a big family in a big home, in a small town in Morocco. My father was a truck driver and my mom used a sewing machine. They didn’t make much money, but we went to school and I had a lot of friends.

The first time I came to the United States, I didn’t speak English. When I went to the store, I took my husband. I took him everywhere I went. One day my husband said, “I can’t help you. Take a map, ________.” When I went shopping I got lost, but I didn’t forget my address. I took a taxi home.

After that I made friends. They were nuns. I went to see them every day. I stayed with them and learned a lot, and I got used to it. I traveled and visited Morocco, my kids and I. But it would be difficult for us now to live somewhere other than the U.S. My husband, my kids and I love this country.

I would like some things for me and my kids and my husband. I would like to have a Moroccan restaurant, because I could cook different foods. We all have an American dream.

I wish that one day the world will have no wars anywhere. I would like people to understand each other’s religions, respect one another and be at peace with everyone.

Following my dream and accomplishing my goals can help people. I wish to speak English better and learn how to read and write English better. I am going to school to accomplish my goals. I also care about my children’s education. To me, school is people’s future. It teaches you many things.

Also I wish the American people would not tear down old buildings.

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