Providing Library Outreach Services to Immigrants
Ghada Kanafani Elturk, Boulder, Co, USA
Does anyone wake up one morning and say: Today I am going to uproot myself and my daughters, leave the country where I was born, the families I belong to, the friends, the culture, the music, the food, the poetry I grew up to love, and go live in a foreign place?
For survival, and for the safety of our children, we do this and more. We try to leave behind the hardships and offer them a better life than the one we had.
But, what happens to us and to our identity? We realize who we are when we try to exist in relation and in comparison to the "other.” We find out that there is a need to explain who we are, but so much is lost in translation; and yet, we favor the dwarfed version rather than living and accepting the stereotypes about us.
You've heard the expressions "living in two worlds" and "stranger in a strange land.” As a matter of fact, you end up belonging to neither and you never stop being a stranger to both.
How many times did you hear: "I am a Latino, but I am not that Latino; I am a Muslim, but I am not that kind of Muslim; I am an immigrant, but I am ...; I am gay, but...; I am White Caucasian, but I am not....?” Why do people feel the need to add a disclaimer every time they tell their stories.
Being an immigrant is a state of being not the being itself, not the individual person, and definitely not the identity. Immigrants are not an issue, nor are they numbers for statistics or subjects for surveyors. For sure most of them certainly resist to be objectified. There is a fine line between honoring and objectifying. Few are vocal about it but most walk away, our role is to catch them before they walk away. We need to nurture and not to mother; mothering is condescending and patronizing. Immigrants are people in bad situations, our role is to help to fix situations not people.
You realize, after working for longer periods of times with immigrants, that the longer they have been here the more frustrated they are. The newer immigrants are full of hope and gratitude.
Being involved closely with the diverse communities of immigrants allows us to know of their needs and aspirations. Dialogue creates understanding of each other and helps to ease--as much as possible--the belonging to this community.
Yes, most of us are immigrants but we are NOT a nation of immigrants, we are an ever evolving nation of nations; let's not forget the First Nations of this land.
We need to keep in mind the diversity within the immigrant community, and the diversity within communities that share the same country of origin, culture or language backgrounds.
I am sorry to report, though, that immigrants in general share the belief that Government is the enemy; that's what their experiences tell them, and that's why they became immigrants in the first place.
Raising awareness about the local government is important. We need to create trust and a safe space for immigrants to voice opinions and needs. This takes time but it is the most important lesson and model we can offer. Without this sustainable model, immigrants will continue to live on the fringes, and we will continue to live in a fragmented and segregated community.
Try to think of a time when you have seen a group of people who are different from you. In hospitals maybe? Airports? But not in our daily lives. Even in schools immigrant parents opt to meet one on one with the teacher or the principal.
The immediate needs of immigrants are basic human needs: to find schools for their children, to be able to attend free or affordable English language and citizenship classes, to learn about the cultures of this new place, to find jobs, to find a place to live, and to connect with people from their own cultural and language backgrounds.
These basic human needs require us to help raise awareness of their rights and responsibilities. At the same time we need to teach about the importance of reporting discrimination and abuse, for their sake and their families’ sakes, and for the sake of the community at large.
In my opinion, the one thing that might make the biggest improvement in our work with immigrants is an approach that falls between the "Welcome Wagon" and "Nothing About Them Without Them."
After eight years of living and working in the USA, I moved to East Boulder. Shortly after, three women knocked on my door. They asked if I knew what the Welcome Wagon is; I did not, but I had a sense of what it is and why they were visiting. I thought that was a nice gesture, but I wished they had asked me about myself and my daughters; I wished they had asked me what I needed as a newcomer. That is what I mean by the combination of these two approaches.
When I outreach to the immigrant communities or meet them at the library, I go over who we are as an organization, what we do, how we do it and why. I tell them that this is their place because they live here, work and pay taxes. Then I ask what is it that they need. What works best for them? How can I help to make their lives here better? I never ask, "What brought you here?" This will take them back to trauma instead of accomplishing the goals of finding out what they need and learning about the library. It is an opportunity for me to teach about the library as a public and community place and space. Immigrants from warring countries, for example, are about to use the same space and respect each other’s presence, as equals.
A couple of Fridays ago, we had a baby shower for two of the Conversations in English students. It was most uplifting to see these students from all around the world communicating, sharing food and stories, some were knitting for the babies. I thought of this positive community building opportunity. These newcomers are enjoying each other’s company and negating or reversing some of the hate and the misconceptions about each other.
A couple of weeks ago, a former student from Spain emailed me to express concern about the Four Mile fire (a devastating fire in our community) and asked if there’s anything she can do to help. This shows how connected she felt to this community.
When giving information, we should not overwhelm immigrants with too much, just give them what they need for their lives to get going, keep the channels of communications open and make ourselves available for them at any time. Using Internet, for example, allows us to give them exactly what is available in their own neighborhoods or workplaces.
I work closely with various community organizations, the university, English as a second language schools, immigrant integration groups and coalitions. Collaboration with all of these and with Federal, City, County agencies, etc ... proves to be most efficient. There needs to be one place, a clearinghouse for information that newcomers are able to find out about living and working in Boulder and Boulder county. A place that has free resources, free access to information and a knowledgeable and competent staff. It is better than having them go around from one agency to another and is more cost effective for people who are struggling to make ends meet.
Had the Welcome Wagon members asked, I would have told them that I was desperate. I needed to know where to go because the employer who brought me to Boulder took the work I developed for him and laid me off. I knew it was unjust, but I did not know where to go.
I would have also asked them about where to look for work other than the classified ads.
I am grateful for something that was called "Minority Resume Exchange;” when I went to their job fair in the early Nineties I noticed the City of Boulder table of information. I felt the City is part of the community and part of the groups I belong to, the minority groups. A year or so later, I received a phone call, a woman's voice told me, "I am sorry, I don't know how to say the name. I am not even sure if it is a male's or a female's name, but I am looking at your job application and resume, and I think you have the skills to do the job. Would you have the time to meet?"
I am forever grateful to this woman not only because she gave me the chance, but because she had the courage and the sense of equity to put her knowledge, or the lack of it, aside, and give this total stranger the same chance as other applicants.
During the interview, she did not say "Tell me about yourself" or "Why should we hire you instead of all other applicants"? Had she done that I would have sank back in my chair. "Tell you about myself" I wish you knew what we call people who talk about themselves. Why you should hire me instead of others? Oh no, I don't want to take other people's opportunities. See, most of us were brought up to work together and not to compete or to brag about ourselves. It's the collective that is the focus and not the individual.
Luckily, she went over what is needed for the job, asked if I had the experience, if not, how would I accomplish the task. She focused the interview on the skills needed and not the person. Focusing on individuals, in this case, makes them uncomfortable and throws them off center.
Flexibility in our approaches is a must. We need to be competent enough to be flexible and accommodate diverse situations. We need to allow ourselves the chance to know people through the interview; relying on paper work is not sufficient, especially if the person grew up, got their education or work experiences in foreign countries. Most of the time, this doesn't fully translate or make sense in the USA circumstances.
To stay focused on the employment aspect, immigrants in general feel lucky to have a job; they think of it as a privilege rather than an earned opportunity. They are able now to send money back home and to make a living here. Past experiences and what happened to people who spoke up, is forever fresh in their memories. That’s why they take abuse and discrimination. After all, they still need to send money back home to family or to children; they need to save face and not appear ignorant on one hand and not confirm that they made the wrong choices by leaving their countries, even though it was the last chance for safety and survival.
We also need to be practical about measuring our accomplishments. The human experience—the narrative—is not to be excluded from our reporting mechanisms. Any design or procedure needs to be flexible, user-friendly and accessible, especially if immigrants are to be active participants.
Had the Welcome Wagon asked, I would have told them how anxious I was about the schools my daughters were going to attend. I would have asked them to connect me with parents of other students. But soon, I connected with the communities through volunteering at the schools’ libraries and committees.
Still, I needed someone to help me to figure out why I was not called to speak in my daughters’ classes. Every single school year, I filled out the application forms needed and included all the topics I am able to talk about, but only after September 2001 I was invited to speak.
Later, I needed for someone to help me confront the school counselor, who told one of my daughters that she would graduate high school even if she didn’t apply herself, and she could always enroll in a community college.
And, I need for someone to help me to understand why I am able to only talk about other communities’ oppressions but not my own.
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License