For the past three years, I have been volunteering weekly at the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, teaching English literacy. The people in this class may have had little to no schooling in their home country, or may not yet have experience with the English alphabet. We start every day by saying the date and talking about the weather; then we usually do a group lesson. I love when we pass a mirror around the room, look into it and say, “I am beautiful,” or, “I am handsome,” which always cracks us all up! After this, their teacher breaks them into groups—that’s where we volunteers come in. I may spend time teaching my group the names of objects found in the kitchen, or we may practice paying for items and counting change. Frequently we spend time in conversation, where we practice asking and answering questions that will come up in their lives: What is your name? Do you have any children? Where do you come from? When did you come to America? Do you have any I.D.? And it is here that I struggle to stay calm these days. Those questions seemed innocuous at the least and interesting at the most when I first started volunteering. But now they feel dangerous.
Day after day, for several years now, I have read the stories of immigrants coming to our country and being treated inhumanely by our government. Children are literally ripped away from their families, some never to be returned. I have a six-year old, and I can barely think about what that would be like for me. I have seen news stories about detention centers run by for-profit organizations who withhold water, food, soap, and mattresses from the people they’re “housing.” Last week’s testimony by a White House attorney argued that soap and toothbrushes were not necessary items to ensure a safe and sanitary environment. I almost couldn’t bring myself to watch the testimony, but it’s my job as an American citizen to know what my government is doing.
We at Compass are in the business of helping everyone find their place in the world. Yes, it’s our tagline, but juxtaposed with the sickening way other human beings are being treated in my own country, it takes on more meaning. The people in these detainment centers came to America to seek asylum, to work, and to raise their families. The conditions in their home countries were so bleak or terrifying that they came here, which used to be seen as a bastion of hope. Immigrants are being crowded into unsanitary, dangerous facilities, with little hope that they’ll ever find their place in the world. Four children have died in these shelters. Over twenty adults have died. When I think of the hard-working men and women in my class at the Immigrant Learning Center, it physically pains me to imagine them and their children in similar conditions. I now know that if their situations were slightly different, they may be in a sweltering-hot, stinky tent, without their children, instead of in our friendly class, laughing, singing, and learning how to say, “I am beautiful” into a mirror.