The Stories That Save Us

Reston, Virginia is like many Washington DC-area communities. It has many immigrants from around the world who’ve come here for a better life, to work, to provide for their families, many of whom are still in their countries of origin. I’m in Reston at the invitation of my friend Leila Gordon of the Reston Community Center – an Egyptian-American, Leila has brought me here many times to work with kids at the Langston Hughes Middle School and the South Lakes High School.

This time I’m doing a four-day residency working with ESOL students (English-language learners) in both schools, as well as ESOL adult students from another community center in the area. We are using stories, language, and poetry to get them to express their own histories, traumas, triumphs, dreams, difficulties, and hopes.

I’ve worked so far with astounding young people from countries such as Somalia, El Salvador, Pakistan, Lebanon, Colombia, Honduras, China, Mexico, and more. Although they are all learning English, some very well, they have different levels of language proficiency. I start by telling my own story of being an immigrant kid, of going to schools in LA in the 1960s that used to beat us for speaking Spanish, of being in the streets, in gangs, on drugs, but also how I overcame these to persevere, become an acclaimed writer, and a respected father, husband, and community leader. From the 1970s to today, I helped organize efforts and battles for bilingual education, quality schools, decent housing, resources and jobs for youth, and much more. This story resonates with the most recent arrivals who are undergoing struggles of their own to be heard, to survive, to learn, and to be healthy.

With the adults, I’ve been brought to tears as they painstakingly write and talk in a language they are not familiar with (English) to begin to master this language so they too can express their sentiments, thoughts, and stories. In the adult class we have people from Camaroon, Pakistan, Turkey, El Salvador, Peru, and Belize. There are single mothers who came here with their children, starving with little skills – now they are working, learning English, and planning to further their education.

One woman left her husband in the US, after 21 years of an arranged marriage from her country, when she refused to continue being beaten and to watch her children beaten by this man. Another woman almost drowned along with her children as they braved the deepest parts of the Rio Grande on tires.

One 40-year-old man came across the border, stuffed into a rail car with other Mexicans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans hanging on the sides or roofs. He saw one woman fall and get her legs chopped up by the train (she then put her head onto the path of the train’s wheels to die). He saw fellow travelers have their money taken by polleros (the people who help bring workers across the border, sometimes known as coyotes) and not deliver. He saw bandits beat and rob the defenseless migrants.

He eventually found his way to Virginia. He got a job as a carpenter, received his work permit, and is presently working on his residency; he hopes to become a citizen someday (he has five children in his country of origin that he misses, and plans to visit once all his papers are squared away).

I met people here who want to work, to positively give back, follow the law, and do what they can to be strong, contributing members of this society. Yes, a few came over to this country without papers – what people don’t understand is that the process of getting permission to work or live in the US is one that only allows for a small amount of people compared to the millions who need to do so (the issue of decent, meaningful work in poor countries has to be addressed if we are to have a truly humane immigration policy). One woman has a son who fought in Iraq; many immigrants are willing to give their life for this country (I may not agree with this, but that's a fact). These are people who are assets and will continue to be assets for the betterment and future of the United States.

I hope to get some of the ESOL youth and adults to read with me tonight as part of a performance that ends this residency at the Reston Community Center Theater. I know if this happens, it will be a unforgettable, moving, and enlightening event.

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