CHICAGO — The last time I saw Sil Ganzó, she was beaming as she gave a tour of her after-school care facility for newly arrived immigrant and refugee children.
Based on her enthusiasm, you’d have thought the tiny, two-room storefront for the elementary-school students had the grandeur of Google’s headquarters. But, as I recall, it had few windows, and she was fighting to get local dog owners to pick up after their pets on the loose gravel outside the building — the barren spot where the trash cans were kept but also where the kids liked to make up games and run out their wiggles.
That was back in 2015, when I visited the OurBridge program in Charlotte, North Carolina, which Ganzó runs as executive director. I learned on my visit about the astounding diversity and expanding population of U.S.-born Hispanics, immigrants and refugees in the American South.
Charlotte continues to expand and serve as a gateway for new Americans. This has meant major changes for OurBridge and for Ganzó’s newcomers.
“We’ve grown! In the last couple of years, we tripled the number of kids to about 200 and expanded to middle school-aged kids. Our home is now a beautiful building with hundreds of acres of green space, a lake and a kitchen,” Ganzó gushed to me on the phone recently. “We partnered with an elder care organization and are renting it for one dollar a year! We can take the kids to cook, on hikes; they have soccer fields and have planted a garden.”
It sounds like an oasis for children who are often scarred by the effects of war, deprivation and unspeakable trauma — whether it be from crossing our southern border or arriving here from Syria, Burma, Bhutan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Truly, it’s a sanctuary. And I don’t mean the new facility — I’m sure it is beautiful, but when I visited, I witnessed gold-standard student-centered engagement. Kids working with each other to build block towers, teachers modeling self-advocacy and problem-solving, older students helping younger ones with homework, groups practicing English and filling in the blanks with their shared language of hand gestures and smiles.
My visit to OurBridge sprung to mind when I heard Ken Cuccinelli, the White House acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, make a mockery of the Statue of Liberty’s famous Emma Lazarus-penned inscription. He suggested: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
What he didn’t say was that almost all poor, undereducated immigrants can pull themselves up by their bootstraps — they just need a loving, helping hand.
“We make our families feel cared for, not just by teaching their kids English, but by advocating for them in the community,” said Ganzó, herself an immigrant from Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Last year when we had ICE agents knocking on doors, I had a parent calling me from the closet, scared because they were outside her house. We went to our elected officials to ask that the city not cooperate. Unfortunately, the mayor didn’t sign on to do that, like many other major cities, but it gives our families peace of mind that someone is fighting for them.”
Ganzó said that both parents and students come to understand and eventually love the U.S., not because they’re offered English as a second language classes or after-school care, but because they feel connected to their new home when their own homelands are honored.
“We know we don’t want our families to ‘assimilate’ — that word is misused because it means that one culture supersedes the other. What we want to achieve is acculturation, where you learn and become part of a culture without losing your identity or where you come from,” Ganzó said. “We take the kids to their markets where they see their flags. We’ll go to the Nepali store, the Asian market, the Latino food market, the African store — then we ask them to help us buy the food for their recipes, and it makes the kids so proud that they know something that we don’t know.”
People who seek to keep others out of this country don’t realize that people who make the treacherous and heartbreaking journey to this country do so because they want to get on their own two feet. They don’t want a handout, but their success here does rely on being met with a welcoming hand.
Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.