Immigrants find work and hope in The Berkshires
Jana Laiz stands with some of her many students here in the Berkshires.
Photo Provided by Jana Laiz
I am a refugee of Reaganomics. At the age of 17, I began volunteering through the International Rescue Committee to help Vietnamese boat people in New York City. At 24, I was hired as a refugee-resettlement caseworker to work with Cambodian, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Laotian refugees. I went to the airport to welcome families who had been living in camps for months, years. Each time, it was profoundly moving. I found them housing, taught them English, searched for jobs, got them healthcare—anything to make their transition easier. And then in 1986, in one sweeping move, Ronald Reagan slashed the nonprofit budget. Last hired, I was first to leave. It was devastating, and my impassioned letters to the board to keep my job made no difference. There wasn’t a cent left.
Fluent in Chinese, I began working as a guide for Americans touring in China, but it was unfulfilling. Since I could no longer work in my field, New York City held no attraction for me. So I moved to the Berkshires, where a more rural life was found—and a new calling.
The Berkshires of 1986 was starkly different from the Berkshires of today. One did not see much diversity on the streets of Great Barrington, and when I was asked to start an ESL (English as a Second Language) program through the Southern Berkshire Educational Collaborative (SBEC), I wondered who would come to my classes. But in the first year, nearly 60 immigrants from Mexico, China, Burma, Congo, Russia, Japan, and Colombia, showed up to learn English.
I often asked my students: Why the Berkshires? New York is much more diverse. Their answers often surprised me. One of my students, a vibrant woman from Venezuela, told me she could live an entire lifetime in New York City and never need to learn English. She wanted something different for her children. She moved to the Berkshires because she said it would force her to learn English and fully immerse herself in American life. She studied hard and is now fluent in English. She owns her home in southern Berkshire County and has her own thriving business. One of her sons is now an immigration lawyer, and her other son is a Spanish teacher at a private school near Boston.
Another student revealed that she had escaped child slavery in her native Mexico to come here. She has excelled in English and is now a teacher at Kripalu after becoming a certified yoga instructor; she hopes to take yoga and meditation back to her community.
Pittsfield, with open arms, accepted Russian Jewish refugees in the early 1980s. Later, it welcomed refugees from Liberia, orphans from Kazakhstan and Ethiopia, immigrants from Haiti. I had the privilege to teach some of those individuals. One family from Liberia consisted of only a father and three small children. The mother was left behind in a camp, and the girl was so traumatized she refused to speak. Months of nurturing finally brought her around, and now she is a successful high school student.
With our small population of refugees and immigrants, teachers are able to give their students the time they need to learn our complex language and culture. In fact, the Berkshires has become an international hub of sorts. Jobs are plentiful as are opportunities to learn English. Immigrants tell family members and friends, and they come.
Public schools are not only mandated to teach English, but embrace diverse populations of children, and there are many adult-education programs, some publicly funded, some run by volunteers. LitNet is made up of volunteers, individuals wanting to make a difference in the lives of immigrants. Berkshire Community College (BCC) has replaced SBEC and offers free ESL for adults in both northern and southern Berkshire County. From that program, a path to college opens. The Guthrie Center in Great Barrington sets up tutoring opportunities for those in need. We are lucky to have the Berkshire Immigrant Center and the Pittsfield Adult Learning Center in our community. The North Berkshire Adult Basic Education also offers free day and evening ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.
Immigrants here come from every walk of life. Some have escaped poverty, others political hotbeds. I have taught engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, fishermen, chefs, artists, farmers, all working to make a difference in the lives of their families. Soon, if all goes as planned, the Berkshires will open its arms once more to accept refugee families from Syria and Iraq, who have been sponsored by Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts. And with that will come more opportunities for volunteers to help.
Lately, I’ve begun to thank Reagan. He forced me to develop new ways to continue the work I was doing in New York while allowing me the space to write Weeping Under This Same Moon, a novel chronicling my experience as a teenage refugee volunteer. The book is required reading at many high schools and colleges. BCC students are reading it this year, and the community is invited to read along.
This is all connected to a $16,000 grant BCC received from Mass Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities for a pilot project, Berkshire Immigrant Stories, which will pave the way for a Public Humanities Center at BCC. It is one of only three colleges in the Commonwealth to pilot this groundbreaking initiative to collect and share stories of recent local immigrants, their children and grandchildren through an online exhibit and archive called “Your Story, Our Story,” developed by Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
As BCC’s librarian Karen Carreras Hubbard told me, “The more people talk about immigrant stories, the less inclined we will be as a country to go down the narrow path of exclusion.” Let’s keep talking.
Telling Our Story
Berkshire Community College (BCC) and partners are offering hands-on help with photographing objects and writing stories of our local immigrants for the “Your Story, Our Story” online archive. The free workshops are at the Berkshire Athenaeum on March 2, 6 p.m., and at BCC’s Jonathan Edwards Library on April 6, 12:15 p.m., both in Pittsfield.
BCC also is hosting literary events around the theme of immigration, including a presentation by author/poet Martin Espada from noon-1:30 p.m., April 21.
Writer Jana Laiz will hold a series of open book discussions on her Weeping Under This Same Moon at BCC from 2:30-3:30 p.m., April 6, 13, 20, and 27. berkshirecc.edu