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Volunteer teaches English to immigrants in Houston area

SUGAR LAND, Texas (AP) – Mr. Vito, as his students call him, began class with his usual questions: “What do you want to know? What would you like to read?”

The Houston Chronicle reports the English as a Second Language instructor, whose full name is Vito Susca, sat at the head of a long conference table. By his elbow, a pile of dog-eared reference books: A Dictionary of American Idioms. World Almanac 2017. Collins Thesaurus. Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

His adult students at the Literacy Council of Fort Bend County can look up a nettlesome word in seconds on their smartphones, but the 86-year-old Susca is old school. So whenever someone stumbles over vocabulary, one of the books is passed around the table.

From Renee Kang, a native of Hong Kong, to Erika Arroyo, a soon-to-be first-time mother from Brazil. From Jean Cuyollaa, an ebullient retiree from France, to Morvarid Rad, a soft-spoken Iranian.

From one newcomer to another, then back to Mr. Vito, a retired engineer, Korean War veteran, history buff, widower twice over, son of an Italian immigrant father and Polish-American mother who both struggled to learn English as adults.

In his 17th year as a volunteer teacher, Susca conducts his class like a seminar on American culture, weaving in current events and comic strip brain teasers, regaling students with tales from his life and chapters from U.S. history. They leap from syntax and vocabulary to the Haymarket Square riots and the Trail of Tears; from grammar and idioms to the six flags of Texas and the meaning of Juneteenth.

Susca meanders and motivates, corrects mistakes gently and nudges reluctant speakers, creating a welcoming space for immigrants who must not only learn a thorny new language, but navigate a new way of life.

They are pushing past homesickness and hostility, delighting in this country’s freedoms and discovering some of its flaws, and finding support among strangers who recognize that an accent does not equal a lack of education.

Just like Susca’s parents.

Just like countless waves of immigrants before them.

“What would you like to read?” Susca asked again, as the students shuffled through a package of articles and opinion pieces clipped from the newspaper. One was about gender-loaded language in fiction; another about the universality of feeling like a foreigner.

A third was headlined “The Immigration Dodge” – a Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing for lowering the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.

They started with that one.

“What do you do with people who have been here for a long time but are illegal, not a citizen?” Susca said, posing an opening question. “Under Trump’s plan, he wants them all out of here.”

Kang began reading: “All sides need to be clearer about what immigration policy is meant to … achieve.” Her tongue tangled over the last word.

“Achieve,” Susca repeated. “What is it going to do for us? By deporting these people to their countries, what will it do for us?”

He paused.

“It’s a painful experience for people who wanted to come here, who wanted freedom because this is, of course, the land of opportunity,” mused Susca. “Whatever you want to do, if you’re a hard worker, you can do what you want. You can make a very good life.”

“It’s the American Dream,” said Kang.

“Yep, the American Dream,” Susca agreed, “that’s what we always talk about.”

That is what drew Moryel Roman and her family from Venezuela three years ago. Her husband, who works for Energizer, was offered a chance to transfer. The political situation back home was chaotic. The U.S. seemed more secure, safer for their children

Roman, 36, arrived knowing only some grammar from her high school English classes. Now, she can communicate more easily, but is still shy about her accent.

In class, that isn’t a problem. Outside, it can be.

“Sometimes, when you try to understand what they are saying and you ask can you please repeat that, people are not very kind with you,” said Roman, who has been in the ESL class since January. “They say: ‘You are not from this country. Keep quiet.’ “

Roman tries to take those comments in stride. The problem, she says, is the other person’s, not hers.

Besides, she retorts, “what other language do they know?”

As the students took turns reading the op-ed, Susca reviewed new vocabulary words. Contentious. Polarizing. Animosity. Ideological.

“More than 4 million people are on immigration waiting lists,” read Jennie Lai, who came from Hong Kong. “And the universe of potential immigrants to the U.S. is much larger still.”

Allowing large numbers of immigrants into the U.S., the writer argued, would depress wages and cause Americans to lose jobs.

“That’s the biggest problem. Most Americans won’t do these jobs,” Susca said. “They consider them distasteful.”

Another new word.

“Distasteful? Not tasty?” joked Cuyollaa, who enlivens the classes with a mischievous wit. “What will happen to Sugar Land and all these communities where you have lawns to be cut when Trump will put them back?”

Susca thought of his father, who immigrated in 1909 and earned a living laying tracks for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. He was paid a dollar a day and had to shell out 10 cents a night to sleep in a boxcar.

“No one wanted to do that job,” said Susca. “Who would do these jobs if you didn’t have immigrants coming in?”

An hour into class, Soraya Blanco hustled into the room with an apology and an enthusiastic greeting for Mr. Vito.

The Venezuelan immigrant had rushed from her job as a dispatcher for the Greensheet. A former flight attendant, Blanco left her country to escape political turmoil and to join her oldest son, who has been living in the U.S. for 13 years.

At first, she said, she felt embraced and sheltered here. That changed with the presidential election last November.

Now, Blanco feels that immigrants – whether they are here legally or not – are no longer met with open arms. She senses a new animosity in routine interactions. It scares and saddens her.

“If we are doing everything we are supposed to, we expect to live in peace and safety,” she said.

Blanco picked up the reading: “Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors.”

Susca scanned the students seated at the table, 10 of more than 700 immigrants who attend several classes a week at the center to improve English and gain marketable skills. Living in a county often tagged the most diverse in the nation, in a region where one in four residents are foreign-born.

“He’s saying these people don’t integrate. They feel that they’re separate,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know about that, because of what I do here. The people who come here are eager to learn about integrating into society.”

He shrugged.

“OK. Let’s go on.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com


Source: www.washingtontimes.com stories: Politics

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