Immigrants coming to the United States illegally draw a lot of attention and rancor. And I will be the first to say that the entire situation is handled dismally. But illegal immigration tends to overshadow LEGAL immigration.
There are still thousands of people coming to the US legally, with all of their paperwork in place, with the goal of finding a better life. Often, these people make their way here from places beset by war and conflict. These people are exactly like previous generations that built the United States.
Recently, I was invited to talk to a group of immigrants in Charleston who were forming a “conversation club”. They were studying English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Garnet Career Center and wanted to practice talking…to each other and native English speakers as well. In the group, there were four people from Syria (two of them children), two from Iran, and one each from Afghanistan, the Czech Republic and Cameroon. The organizers told me there were others, but that they couldn’t make it that night. The club meeting took place at the Charleston branch of the Kanawha County Library.
I was pleased to hear all of them say their reception in Charleston had been positive. They liked the city. And everyone said the people they had met were nice. A few had issues with the weather, but several had never seen snow before moving to the United States. One happened to arrive in Charleston last January; in the middle of a snow storm and right before the water crisis. (Frankly, I’m surprised she stayed. Most of us who were born here wanted out.)
I was invited to talk to the group because of my own experiences traveling. One of the first things I told them was I remembered being in Russia and being nervous about going out to get cash or get something to eat on my own, afraid my language skills wouldn’t be good enough. I was embarrassed and didn’t want to draw attention to myself. There were times it was easier to wait until the next day when a friend would come and get me, even if it meant going hungry for the night. I got some knowing looks. I’m sure more than one of them has had similar experiences. One girl mentioned she had been shopping when the cashier asked her “Credit or Debit”…a question we all know very well. Except, the cashier said it so quickly, the student had no idea what she was saying. Even when it was repeated.
If you happen to meet someone on the street with an unusual accent or who looks a little bewildered, ask them if they need help. Smile. Make them feel welcome. And if you’re interested in helping the group practice their English, you can contact the library to find out when they need someone to come in for a good conversation..