Monday, October 5, 2009

Habitat for Humanity Fall Build

Sunday, I spent the day with five students from the Vanderbilt English Language Center. All five students are women from Saudi Arabia, between the ages of 19 and 28. None of them had ever done any manual labor in their lives (besides the odd job around the house) and all seemed to have a positive attitude going into the day. Me? Not so much.

Since breaking two ribs a couple of months ago, I have tried to avoid strenuous activity, to the disappointment of my self-appointed trainer, Stacey Perry. I have avoided thinking about this volunteer activity I planned months ago, hoping that if I didn't think about it, it might just go away. I typically enjoy these types of events: large number of people, working together for a cause. Its enough, usually, to get me humming Kumbaya. This time, however, I dreaded the early morning alarm at 5:15 am, the 30 minute drive to Nashville in the dark, the taxi ride with students I have yet to really bond with, and then, of course, the 6 hours of hard labor. Happily, although all these things were present, I ended up having a wonderful time.

The best part of the day, for me, was watching these five women accomplish tasks they had never even considered setting their hands to. I loved watching their mouths form the new words as if the world depended on their learning them: caulk, roller, nap, five-way, wet-dry vac. They owned the room they painted. After finishing a portion, each would stand back and admire their work. They giggled at the paint on their burkas and helped wipe paint off one another's faces. Not once did they ask for a water break. These women were on a mission.

None of these women had met before coming to the US, though all of them are from Saudi Arabia. They are all either married or engaged and they marveled at the Fellowship Bible Church's Singles Group that were working alongside of us. The single's group actually consisted of all women around the same ages as my students. The Saudis tried hard to disguise their shock that not one of these other twenty women were married. What a sad lot for these poor American women who have to survive on their own without marriages pre-arranged for them! My students were bonded, instantly, by their clearly more successful cultural norms. Later, during a discussion we were having on the differences our cultures, the majority of the women volunteered that they were married to their first cousins. They smiled at one another, approving, one by one, her success. I just knew they were thinking: Maybe if American women opened their minds a little to the options their Saudi counterparts had- arranged marriage to first cousins, perhaps- they too might be able to snag a man.

I am certainly looking forward to my class discussion tomorrow! Kumbaya, My Lord, Kumbaya.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A New Discussion in Franklin

This past Wednesday night, in Franklin, a meeting was held at the restaurant La Hacienda called The Importance of New Arrivals in our Community. The forum was the brain child of Cecilia MeloRomie, a Latina Williamson County resident, who desired to transport the public discussions that are happening in Metro Nashville about the challenges and contributions of the immigrant community to her Franklin community.

The New Arrival population is growing rapidly in Middle Tennessee, both in number and in significant contribution. Inherent in this reality are countless challenges and obstacles that inhibit successful integration and limit contributions. Join us for an evening of reflection and conversation about the challenges New Arrivals face when assimilating into our community as well as participate in a dialogue about how we can assist New Arrivals to lead productive and contributing lives. The goal of this gathering is to begin a dialogue that will lead to the successful integration of New Arrivals and the creation of an open and inclusive environment that will embrace the many contributions New Arrivals make.

Salvador Guzmán, the owner of the restaurant La Hacienda and active Franklin citizen, graciously provided dinner for all attendees. Those present were the mayors of Williamson County and the City of Franklin (Rogers Anderson, John Schroer, and Tom Miller-former Franklin Mayor, respectively), several local clergy, (including Scott Roley-pastor of Christ Community Church, Jose Duran-associate pastor of La Casa de Mi Padre, and Neal Paez-Pastor of La Casa de Mi Padre), members of the several non-profit organizations (Nashville for All of Us, Coalition for Education about Immigration, Clergy for Tolerance, and Conexión), the general manager of Lowes Hotel (Tom Negri), a representative from the US Census Bureau, the editor of the Hispanic online resource Hispanic Nashville (John Lamb), the publisher and editor of the Tennessee Hispanic newspaper Latino Periódico, Jim Palmer from Channel 4 News, local members of the school board, and many other concerned Franklin residents. TIRRC (Tennesse Immigrant & Refugees Rights Coalition) was also present and sponsored the music and interpretation. Hola TN Director Alfonso Nieto, Latino News TN Regional Director Nere Vargas, Eliud Trevino from El Crucero News,Ramon Cisneros from La Campana. Jim Baumann, CET and Eric Alvarez, General Manager of Telefutura Channel 42 were also in attendance.

One of Melo-Romie’s goals for the evening was to re-create the dialogue that has been started by the group Nashville for All of Us, which is a non-profit group that was participated in the charge that led to the defeat of the English-Only Ordinance. The group began with three Nashville residents sitting around a table lamenting the negative public discussions they continually heard regarding the impact of immigrants on their city’s prosperity. They decided then and there that they were going to start a new conversation, one that would be based on facts and information about the positive impacts new arrivals have on any community, including the richness of diversity. Several charges were given to the Williamson County attendees on the importance of organizing for this cause.

Some of the more provocative statistics that were shared during the meeting included:

-11.8 million undocumented workers in the US

-of these 11.8 million, 57% are Mexican, 17% are Latino and 26% are from the rest of the world.

-So, 43% of undocumented residence are not from Mexico and the majority come in from the Canadian border. Which means that, although almost half of these people crossed into the US from the North, the US government has committed most of the funds to federally combat illegal immigration to patrol and build a wall along the Mexican border. Which raises the question: Why aren’t there efforts to build a wall along our northern border?

-Undocumented workers in the US pay taxes. In fact, these workers actually pay more taxes per capita than their American counterparts.

-More than 700,000 jobs are created each year in the US. However, the US has fewer and fewer citizens entering the labor force yearly. In fact, there are only enough workers to fill half of these jobs. Again the question that must be raised is: Why are there only 5,000 work permits given each year to New Arrivals, when there is such a need? Why do undocumented workers continue to come to the US? Because of our need. Why do they stay? Because of our need.

Another conversation started last night surrounded the new law 287G, which basically allows Homeland Security to authorize local and state law enforcement to perform duties of immigration control. This arrangement has been adopted by the Nashville government. The speakers of last nights forum were urging the local elected officials to vote against this agreement with the Sheriff’s Department of Williamson County. The law, in essence, was initiated in order to help support the expedient deportation of undocumented criminals in our country. However, the implementation of this law has not been as effective as anticipated. Many undocumented workers are being deported for minor traffic violations and other non-violent crimes, in effect, separating families who have lived in the US for decades. Since any child born in the US is given citizenship status, American children are being left parent-less and are entering into our foster care system over broken tail-lights.

An important call to action was made by the representative of the US Census Bureau. A new census will be done soon and the government needs all the local support possible. Many undocumented citizens do not get counted. Their understandable fear of the government keeps them from filling out the survey sent to every household. However, when they are not counted, our area is not given the funds necessary for public provisions, including education. The Williamson County School System is dependent on federal and local funds that are calculated based on accurate numbers. Citizens can help by encouraging everyone to fill out the surveys and by organizing to promote a faithful count of our population. The bottom line is: More people counted= more money allocated.

Hispanic Heritage Month is being celebrated nationally. President Johnson initiated the national recognition Hispanic Heritage week in order to promote awareness of the contributions that Latino-Americans have made to our country. President Reagan extended the celebration to one month. Last night, Nashville lawyer and Williamson County resident Gregg Ramos shared the statistic that over 300,000 Hispanic-Americans fought in World War II, including his father. As a Mexican immigrant during the depression his father voluntarily joined the US army. He learned English in France and Germany. Ramos shared a deep love and respect for his father who fought for the country that he loves. To shouts and applause, Ramos quoted the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Another speaker reminded the attendees that the Statue of Liberty is a patriotic symbol that reminds the American of the character quality we, as a nation, possess: hospitality to those who are tired, weary and poor, to those who are looking to create a better life for their families, or at very least the freedom to pursue it. If those engaged in the dialogue from last night want to help continue to build that character of our nation, the leaders of the meeting encouraged them to communicate often with their elected officials. They also encouraged Franklin's Latino residents to run for public office so their voice would be heard. The final charge of the evening was given in Hebrew, “Shalom – Go in Peace.”


Some sources and helpful resources regarding NewArrivals and the statistics shared:

*United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington , D.C *TN Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Employment Security Division, Research and Statistics *Migration Policy Institute, *Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (This is an amazing resource for churches who are looking for ways to reach out to the immigrant population in their community. It includes an enlightening powerpoint presentation about the history of immigration in our nation.)

For more information regarding future meetings and ways to volunteer in Franklin, please contact Cecilia MeloRomie:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you. You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)