When you hear the word “immigrant,” what do you think? In general, the public discourse about immigrants and immigration is simplified. Most Americans have a specific person, career path, language and culture that comes to mind when they hear the term. But through our Adult English as a Second Language program, we have learned that immigrant stories are simply people stories. They’re unique, beautiful, complicated and moving.
As a lesson in English and as an opportunity to shift how Memphians view our local immigrant community, HopeWorks AESL team developed “Immigrant Stories” – a PDF book that includes the personal stories and experiences of HopeWorks immigrant students. In their own words, they outline some of the misperceptions, challenges, opportunities and joys that come along with being an immigrant. Here are a few key things that we learned.
Immigrating to the United States does not mean that someone does not love their home country.
When we asked our students what their birth culture or country means to them, many of them shared strong words signifying a deep connection. For many of them, their family members or portions of their family still reside there. Their native country means love, comfort, friends and fond memories. Though some of them left their countries because of challenging circumstances, many of them still reflect fondly on the place they are from.
Coming to America almost always signified new opportunities.
Overwhelmingly our students agreed that opportunity is what drew them to America. Whether they were seeking freedom and liberties for their children or they needed a well-paying career to support family members back home, coming to America meant they could work toward a life they had previously only dreamed of.
While challenges vary, language is at the top of the list.
Being an immigrant is hard. There is so much to learn about how American culture operates, and navigating our systems can be challenging for immigrants. But the greatest barrier many of our students named was how difficult it is to learn English. Without programs like AESL through HopeWorks, many of our students would face increased challenges communicating, completing essential paperwork, and assimilating into American culture.
Immigrants want to be productive, successful Americans.
Unfortunately, many immigrants face prejudice. Whether or not this is true, many Americans believe that immigrants are competition for their jobs and livelihoods. What our immigrant students wanted Americans to know is that their only goal was to achieve the American dream – finding freedom, acquiring meaningful work that supports their family, and building a community of friends that love them. They’re not competing with Americans, rather they want to become contributing, productive members of American culture.