For native-born Americans, These powerful personal stories open our eyes to the struggles and triumphs of our newest neighbors, but also teach us a lot about ourselves. They helped me more fully appreciate the many challenges of adequately representing my immigrant-rich district, home to Truman College.
Jan Schakowsky, U.S. Congresswoman
In August of 1991 in Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia near a United Nations camp for Vietnamese refugees on the island of Galang, I was witness to the reunification of a family separated by war and politics. It was an event that would change the direction of my professional life.
As a young man, Thuy had been among the Vietnamese who had made it to the United States after the fall of South Vietnam. As a former policeman, Thuy’s father had been forced into a reeducation camp and his family had been left with severely limited opportunities when the North Vietnamese seized power. In 1980, Thuy left his home in Danang, found his way by boat to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, and was resettled in San Jose, California. His brother, Tuan, was 10 years old at that time and had remained in Vietnam. Crowded aboard a fishing ship with others fleeing Vietnam in 1989, Tuan landed in the refugee camp in Galang after a harrowing journey which included attacks by pirates in the South China Sea. Learning of his brother’s arrival and his emotional difficulties in the camp, Thuy traveled from San Jose with the hope of seeing his brother for the first time in nearly 12 years.
Thuy and I met near the dock in Tanjung Pinang as he told me his story. As we watched young boys playing badminton in the street, Thuy drifted off into a private stare. “Tuan was about that age the last time I saw him,” he said in an empty voice as he tossed stones in front of his feet. The silence that followed screamed of the tragedy.
A visit to Galang turned out to be impossible, but with money and arrangements with the Indonesian military, Tuan was permitted a 24-hour leave from the camp. Perhaps because I had a video camera that could document the moment, Thuy invited me to accompany him as he walked into a hotel room in Tanjung Pinang to see the face of his 10-year-old brother, 21 years old. As we walked into the room, Tuan stood in the corner shaking. Never had I seen hope and fear, joy and sorrow so raw and exposed as when I saw their eyes meet. I was able to stay only a few minutes before my feeling as an intruder overwhelmed me and forced me to leave. Ten minutes later, Thuy invited me back in. Tuan was still shaking and now crying as he sat on the bed next to his brother. Thuy was too happy for words and, though he would have to say goodbye in less than a day, he was flooded with gratitude for the time he would have together with Tuan. Another year would pass before Tuan was given refugee status and began his new life in North America.
This was the beginning of my work with immigrants and refugees, work that has lasted more than a decade. Since that time, I have worked with thousands of immigrants and refugees in Chicago. Beginning in 1992 as Executive Director of the Tibetan Resettlement Project – Chicago, I coordinated the resettlement of 100 Tibetan refugees and their families from India and Nepal. Since 1994, I have been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults at Harry S Truman College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago and the largest ESL program in the state, where nearly 20,000 students attend free ESL classes every year.
Walk through the halls of Truman College on any day and you will immediately experience a cultural smorgasbord that is the emerging face of the United States of America. The three-story glass and steel building which hosts the majority of the classes at Truman College is home to probably the most diverse population in Chicago, and perhaps the entire United States. More than 110 languages are spoken by students from 144 countries. Indian women in fashionable saris chatting with West African men in colorful dashikis do not stand out as being unusual, as they may in many other places. A middle-aged Korean businessman may be in conversation with a newly arrived young man from Guatemala over lunch in the cafeteria. A Ph.D. holder from the former Soviet Union is likely to be sitting alongside a newly arrived refugee from Sudan, learning the same basic language skills and conversing with each other in English, a language foreign to both.
Truman College is the second home for many new United States Americans in Chicago, who are taking their first step towards membership in their adopted country.
During my years at Truman College, I have experienced daily how the highest values of our American melting pot play themselves out in such an inspiring and successful dance. From cafeteria tables to small group discussions in classrooms, students from around the world honor, respect, and wrestle with their diversity and what they can learn from one another. Here in the humble halls of this community college, the diversity of ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, social customs, political ideas and sexual orientation are not ignored, but celebrated for how they can so greatly enrich our lives.
While the students I have worked with come from vastly different cultures, all of these immigrants share the same human concerns. They are filled with hope and fear. They are torn between the past and the future. They have experienced hardship and success. They cherish family and friends. They want stability and opportunity to pursue their dreams. Their stories may seem different from those who were born here in the United States, but they share with all humanity these basic human qualities.
An Immigrant Class is an attempt to document the human experience of recent immigration to Chicago through 20 first-person stories and photographs of students who have attended English as a Second Language classes at Truman College. These students come from varied nations and cultures. Each reveals the unique elements of his/her life before immigration, the circumstances that motivated the move, the experience of immigrating, and the impressions of life and identity that continue to unfold and change for each one in the United States. Some share their expectations and encounters with success, freedom, and opportunity. Others tell of their disappointments, frustrations and regrets. You will meet those who have come legally and illegally, for opportunity or love, for education or tourism, for themselves or their children, fleeing war or economic hardship, alone or with loved ones.
An Immigrant Class is an attempt to break through the various stereotypes of immigrants to introduce the humanity behind the myth; and to share the hopes, fears, tragedies and triumphs that make up the complexity of the immigrant experience. It is an exercise in listening and understanding. I believe that only when we stop to listen to each other can we recognize, respect, and celebrate our similarities and our differences. By doing this, we can reduce fear and mistrust and embrace the diversity that immigration brings as one of our nation’s greatest strengths. In some ways, we are all strangers. Seeing the stranger in ourselves can hopefully give us greater compassion and understanding for the stranger in someone else. I hope that An Immigrant Class provides a sense of how making the time to listen to one another can eliminate that stranger in all of us.
While immigrants have always been viewed with some degree of mistrust and disdain, the period following September 11, 2001 has been a time of heightened suspicion. The passage of the USA Patriot Act and creation of the Department of Homeland Security has left many immigrants fearful. It is in the wake of these events that I believe An Immigrant Class has even more relevance.
I hope that by reading the individual stories of these recent immigrants, we will recognize part of ourselves in them and see that the struggles and hopes of immigrants are the struggles and hopes of all of us.