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Hartford Library's The American Place Program Helps Refugees, Immigrants

There They Can Learn And Prepare To Become Citizens

Mark Spencer

October 25, 2010

Sixteen-year-old Muhanad Musa wants to become a doctor, a dream that grew increasingly remote in his hometown of Baghdad as violence became a part of daily life.

"We can't go to the market, we can't go to school," he said in Arabic, sitting in the neat, sparsely furnished living room of his family's Maple Avenue apartment. "Sometimes they killed students."

His mother, Sadea, can explain in three words why the family immigrated to the United States. "Freedom, safety and security."

Arriving in Hartford eight months ago, members of the Musa family soon found themselves at the Hartford Public Library, where in the past 10 years thousands of other refugees and immigrants have gone as they try to build new lives.

The American Place program at the library started in 2000 with a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Since then it has become a nationally recognized model for the role that public libraries can play in educating and assimilating immigrants.

The American Place offers a mosaic of programs for everyone, from just-arriving immigrants and refugees to those on the verge of becoming citizens. More than 2,500 immigrants a year take English or civics classes, attend forums or participate in social and community functions.

Homa Naficy, the library's manager of multicultural education and outreach, said that public libraries are ideally suited to serve the diverse population of refugees and immigrants. They have no religious affiliation, which could dissuade some from seeking help, and they don't have the appearance of a government agency to a population that can be suspicious of authority.

"If you have a large immigrant community, by default the library becomes a part of it," said Naficy, an immigrant from Iran.

From the moment that The American Place opened its doors, the demand was obvious, she said. According to the 2008 American Community Survey, 20 percent of Hartford's population is foreign-born. An average of 400 refugee families a year settle in Hartford, Naficy said.

Last month the library received two major grants that will allow it to expand the services it offers.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service gave the library a grant of almost $100,000 so that it can expand its citizenship education services by working with various ethnic organizations, such as the Pakistani American Association of Connecticut and the Bosnian American Islamic Cultural Center.

The federal Institute of Museum and Library Services gave the library $637,896 to develop a program to help immigrants and new citizens play a greater role in the civic life of their communities. The program will be designed so that libraries throughout the country can implement it.

Both groups praised the library's track record for helping immigrants, which is easy to see on any given day. In brimming classrooms, or small groups, or solitary study, people tend to the business of making Americans.

English For Beginners

John Hesterberg starts his English for beginners class by ringing a Tibetan bell, which he thinks is a soothing sound.

Learning a new language is daunting in itself, but many of his students are refugees who come from countries wracked with violence. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bell is followed by the ABCs to the tune ingrained in every English speaker. Besides being from many countries, the students' education levels range from college-educated professionals to those who are illiterate in their own language.

"I handed a pencil to a lady from Somalia and she thought it was something to eat with," Hesterberg said. "The main thing is to be patient and compassionate."

The entire Musa family initially attended English classes at the library, which are co-sponsored by Hartford public schools' adult education. All six of them would walk the half-mile from their apartment to the library every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The three youngest children, aged 13, 14 and 16, are now in Hartford public schools.

Ahmed, 19, and his mother are still in Hesterberg's class, while his father, Maher Musa, has advanced to the intermediate class. His ambitions for now are direct.

"I want to learn English and get a job," he said.

His children are adjusting to their new schools. Hind, 14, said that school is different here. In Iraq, students are respectful of teachers and must stand when talking to them.

"In Iraq, if you don't do your homework the teacher hits you," Muhanad said.

Hesterberg introduced them to a gentler style.

"I love getting up in the morning and coming to work to help people," Hesterberg said. "It's about assimilating people into American culture."

Sewing Circle

Four years ago, Lynne Williamson met some of the immigrant women who had contributed to an exhibit called "Weavings of War."

"The work they were doing was amazing," said Williamson, who works for the Institute for Community Research in Hartford, a nonprofit group that promotes cultural expression, among other community-based initiatives.

The experience inspired her to start a weekly sewing circle in which immigrant women, who often feel isolated, could meet new friends, share their skills and make extra money by selling what they produced.

The group meets every Tuesday at the library and although it's not technically part of The American Place, some of the women attend the English class held in the same room just before the sewing circle.

As the English books are put away, women from Somalia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iran, Iraq and Bosnia take out their supplies to crochet, knit, weave and embroider.

Nilofer Haider of Catholic Charities said that some of the women in the group initially showed clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When I first started working with them, they were very sad," Haider said.

But as they got to know other women in the group and taught each other their crafts, that feeling began to fade, at least for a few hours. The common language is English, with immigrants who have been here longer helping interpret for recent arrivals from their home country.

"Everyone is so encouraging," said Nalifa Mahamoon, who came to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 2005. She watches as an Iranian woman teaches an Iraqi woman how she makes lace with a needle, thread and hundreds of intricate loops and knots.

The two women separate slightly so that Mahamoon can move in closer.

"I wait for Tuesdays," Mahamoon said, a huge smile spreading across her face.

'What's The Electoral College?'

Marie Valencia ticks off the reasons that she wants to become a U.S. citizen. She wants to travel someday and thinks it will easier with a U.S. passport than with one from her native Colombia. She wants to vote. She's even looking forward to being able to serve on a jury, a duty that many native-born citizens find odious.

"I think it would be exciting," she said.

Most immigrants with permanent resident visas must live in the U.S. for five years before becoming citizens. Valencia wants to be ready to take the test when she is eligible next year, so every Saturday for the past two months she has come to the civics class sponsored by The American Place.

She listened and took notes as teacher Zaida Hernandez, an immigration specialist with Catholic Charities, talked about the Pilgrims, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the three branches of the federal government and the contributions of Thomas Jefferson.

Strolling back and forth in front of the class one recent Saturday, Hernandez spoke slowly and clearly, mindful that English is a second language for her students.

"The way she teaches, it's easier to learn," Valencia said.

Hernandez devoted a recent two-hour class to the 10-page citizenship application, often explaining the questions in meticulous detail. She's seen prospective citizens tripped up by seemingly minor misunderstandings and she wants to prepare them as much as possible.

"And/Or," Hernandez reads from the application. "When you see that, what does it mean?"

"One or both," answers Valencia.

To become citizens, applicants must answer 10 questions taken from a list of 100. Hernandez doesn't hew strictly to the test. She says if her students understand U.S. history and how the government works, the test answers will come naturally.

Many are looking forward to the approaching day when they will be able to vote and have questions about a democratic system unknown in their own countries. What's the Electoral College? What's a primary?

"They get fascinated by it," Hernandez said. "They get excited about it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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