Children, Immigration and Loss
Yesterday, Mary, my fourth grader, shared with me that her class was going to be having a new student, from another country, who didn't speak English. She wasn't sure what country the girl was from, but she was very excited. A few years ago, Mary's best friend had moved back to China and Mary was heartbroken. Mary and I talked about what it may be like for the new student, to be coming to a strange place, a new school, new children and not knowing the language. Mary imagined that she might be scared and nervous. I was surprised in a way that she didn't know what language the girl spoke, for I thought it would be nice for the children to all learn at least two words in the new girls' language to welcome her.
The big day came and as Mary stood in line with her class waiting for the bell, the new girl was nowhere in sight. I spoke with her classmates a bit in line and asked them how they thought they could be welcoming without knowing her language. They came up with a few ideas such as smiling, not staring at her, being a friend to her, and helping her in any way to feel like she belonged in the class. I thought that was wonderful that they came up with these great ideas. The bell rang, the children walked noisily into the building and I caught a glimpse of the new student with her family, which appeared to be a mom , dad, and grandparent. They shook hands with the kind and welcoming principal,and as I smiled at the older gentleman, I could almost feel him relax just a bit. Wow, they were turning their beloved child over to a strange school, with strange people and a strange language. I could almost feel their vulnerability.
As I drove home, I was thinking about all of the many families who have and continue to move away from one place to another, often very far from their family, home, school, work, neighborhood, friends, and familiar surroundings, and so often with the hope of a better life for their children. There is so much loss involved in moving from one country to the next. Pauline Boss in her fabulous book, Ambiguous Loss , writes about families who have left behind family, friends, memories and cultures. They often feel tremendous sadness and grief, yet have no one acknowledge their loss, including themselves. Boss talks about the grief that many immigrant parents feel as many of their children gradually want to speak the new language of the new country and almost feel embarrassed by their native language and their families"old" traditions and clothing, which may not be in line with the culture of their new friends.
My former husband came over to this country at the age of 14 from Greece, not knowing the language, and immediately started high school in Perth Amboy. I so often would think what it must have been like for him and his sister who was 16, to just jump right into school, barely knowing a few words to get by. He shared with me that it wasn't easy, and he was bullied a lot and found it a difficult transition. He turned to the television and the radio to learn a lot of the language. He also had to work a full time job to help support the family, after school, and so didn't have a lot of free time to learn the language, but it did keep him busy and relatively safe after school. He moved from a very small Greek island where everyone knew one another to a big city in NJ where his family didn't know anyone. They had tremendous loss and grief, which was not ever acknowledged. His father turned to drinking in an attempt to numb his grief. Although he was happy to come to the USA, he wished that the transition had been easier for him and his family.
I think as communities we need to find ways to make these losses less traumatic for families. According to Orozco and Orozco in their ground breaking book called Children of Immigration, there are things we can do in schools to make the transition easier. "The school's social climate or ethos is a very important quality. The principal needs to be a charasmatic leader who projects authority and exhibits a belief that all children, including immigrant children can learn and excel. The school's morale among teachers and staff needs to be high, without a lot of tension and conflict. The teachers and students need to have a relationship of mutual trust and appreciation. The school district needs to have adequate curriculum and training, as well as books and other supplies. Research has demonstrated that effective schools have: positive leadership and high staff morale, high academic expectations for all students regardless of background, a high value placed on children's cultures and languages, and a safe and orderly school environment."
We can place signs in schools welcoming students in multiple languages, we can prepare students in a classroom ahead of time about their new student. The classroom is like a family awaiting a new child. We can show the students where a child is from on the map and teach them a couple of welcoming words in the language, so that the new student feels a bit more at home. We can use this as a real life geography and social studies project and allow each child to share on the map where their families came from as well. We can form groups to help immigrant parents learn the English language, and find ways to support the new students, by using peer leaders who also are bilingual, as they will often need extra help to do the homework, especially if their parents are struggling themselves with the language. There is much we can do to be a welcoming community.
The more we learn about different cultures, the more we can come to find that, although we have different languages and customs, basically, we are more alike than different. Everyone is the same when it comes to experiencing grief after a loss . We may not express it the same, but the feelings of grief are felt in every language. As it has been said, grief is the great equalizer. Let us grow to be more compassionate human beings to ourselves as well as others, as each one of us is dealing with some type of loss. Well, this is day two and the girl seems to be doing alright and the kids have helped to make her feel welcomed. I still am at a loss as to what country the girl is from, as my daughter and her friend today both were still not sure nor do they know the language she speaks. I will find out from the teacher tomorrow, so that we can learn to speak a little bit of her language as she learns to speak ours. Maybe she will become Mary's good friend.