'Breaking the Ice' gives Berkshire immigrants safe space to share struggles, find hope and help

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's often said that change doesn't happen overnight. But sometimes, it can.

About four and a half hours was the time it took on a recent evening to give nearly 300 people new hope and new friendships, and to help many of them realize that they aren't alone in the struggle to find jobs, to find health care and education and better opportunities than there was in the places they left behind.

Hevreh of Southern Berkshire hosted more than 180 immigrant adults, 50 immigrant children and 80 volunteers to an inaugural gathering called "Breaking the Ice," convened by a group called Berkshire Area Support for our Immigrant Community, or BASIC.

"We want to find out what is working and what is not working for immigrants in the county. We want to create a space for immigrant voices to be heard. We want to bring the immigrant community together for an empowering, safe and fun evening," co-organizer Becky Meier said in advance of the event.

Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) Berkshires Executive Director Ilana Steinhauer, family nurse practitioner and BASIC co-organizer, said that the fastest growing population in the county is comprised of immigrants. While every person who emigrates from one place to another has different reasons and experiences, she said, subsequent experiences in resettling yield common challenges: language barriers that make it more challenging to access housing, work, educational opportunities and health care and pending citizenship statuses that prohibit people from getting driver's licenses and subsequently transportation.

"You can't get a kid enrolled in school or enrolled in insurance if you don't speak English," Steinhauer said. "We're trying to figure out how we can respond to the life of an immigrant and make sure they're thriving."

"Breaking the Ice" took months to plan, from coordinating transportation and translators and child care, to preparing food to not only feed the masses but satisfy the palates and needs of people from multiple cultures and religious backgrounds.

The Facebook post for the evening described the event in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian, and word was spread through other mouths in other tongues. Participants were registered in advance, to ensure a good turnout. Great Barrington Police were on hand outside to help with parking, not to persecute. Representatives from more than 20 Berkshire-area agencies and businesses, from Berkshire Immigrant Center to Berkshire Community College, welcomed participants during the opening resources fair featuring information and services about everything from getting health insurance to finding local recreation opportunities.

The participants included not only people from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, but folks from more than a dozen countries, including: Azerbaijan, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Kazakhstan, Spain, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Russia and Venezuela.

Melting the ice

Eleanore Velez, coordinator of BCC's Multicultural Center and an award-winning advocate for immigrant and human rights, gave welcome in both Spanish and English.

"This is historic," she said of the multicultural gathering.

Many participants later told The Eagle that they had never attended such a program in which they were encouraged to freely discuss, in their own languages, the good, the bad and the ugly of their experience as immigrants in the Berkshires.

"We chose the theme of "ice" because it's February; it's pretty cold, there's ice out there, we needed the opportunity to get together and warm up, also because "I-C-E" in English means something else," Velez said.

"Breaking the ice isn't just the physical ice, it's the ICE. that scares us; ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — that sometimes scares us, sometimes paralyzes us," she said of the federal agency that has been criticized for its zealous enforcement of immigration laws.

Velez used the Dr. Seuss children's story, "Horton Hears a Who!" to characterize the hidden immigrant experience. In the story, an elephant called Horton discovers an entire society of small beings living in a clover, unseen to most. Horton catches wind of their voices and begs a leader to listen to them.

"A person's a person, no matter how small," is the elephant's refrain. But the leader ridicules Horton for hearing voices of beings that can't be seen.

"Sometimes we immigrants hide ourselves," Velez said, explaining her parable to the participants. "The truth of the matter is that there are people who hear us and who are waiting to help us but there are people who don't want to hear us and who really don't want us here and they want to intimidate us."

She then invited everyone in the room to stand up, hold hands and in unison the people exclaimed, "We are here! We are here! We are here!"

Tone set, Velez introduced the next activity to keep momentum.

"What you're going to do is meet your neighbors. That's how we melt the ice, when we meet our neighbors," she said, informing the participants that at each table sat a designated note taker to document what's helped them acclimate and what's made them feel uncomfortable about living in the Berkshires while going through the immigration process.

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"This is a great opportunity to share who you are," Velez said. "We create the heat. Let the heat of your heart melt the ice and keep us warm."

Stories of struggle, hope

If you were a proverbial Horton listening in, you might have heard the story of Pittsfield resident Joyce Olungu and her quest for political asylum from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

You might have seen Balbina Cabrera fighting to hold back tears as she detailed her struggle to leave an abusive relationship with an American man after coming to the U.S. from Mexico.You might have wanted to learn more about how Mauricio Bento left Brazil in search of "intellectual opportunity" and a peaceful existence.

You might hear the relief in the voice of teenager Deisy Escobar when she discovered a roomful of other youths like her who know what it's like "to feel the discrimination" or to help translate English for their non-native speaking parents.

"Usually people don't know about the problems we face. It's nice to have the chance to speak up and find solidarity together," the Mount Everett Regional School ninth-grader said.

She was born in the U.S. but her mother comes from Colombia and her father from Mexico.

"I saw my parents go through so much. I saw how people would make them feel less than others and take advantage of them not speaking English," Escobar said.

But because of organizations like Berkshire Immigrant Center, Volunteers in Medicine, Elizabeth Freeman Center and Berkshire Community College, Escobar said she's also had the chance to see her mother, Martha, flourish.

Together, the mother-daughter duo host a now-award-winning Spanish-English radio program, "Mundo Latino," which airs on WBCR-LP (97.7 FM) and WTBR (89.7 FM). Martha is also pursuing a master's degree to become a counselor.

"I think she's an amazing mom. She's so hard-working. I just hope she has the chance to become bigger and better," Deisy said.

As for herself, the young woman aspires to become a doctor, though, through her school's theater department, has developed an interest in acting as well. "I like helping other people," she said.

So do the members of BASIC, who say they believe the evening's conversations and surveys will better help guide their work.

Hevreh Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch said, "Along with the sense of empowerment, our goal is to gather the stories together so that our network can then determine a strategic plan to address what is not done for immigrants today in Berkshire County."

What has been done for immigrants through Breaking the Ice is to affirm that there is a place for them in their adopted community.

Great Barrington resident Claudia Villamil read to The Eagle a note, written in Spanish, reflecting on the evening. In part, she said, "I like to think that there are people interested in us and I appreciate all their help, their inspirational words, knowledge, advice and dedication."

"We walked over many bridges tonight," said event co-organizer Natalia DeRuzzio, while receiving an endless stream of hugs goodnight while participants parted for home. She's the patient services coordinator for Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires and proud Colombiana with the Italian-sounding last name.

"This was as fun as it was educational, with people forgetting for once that we're "the others." This was a space that gave us a sense of belonging," she said.

After the evening's group discussions, the attendees and volunteers spent the rest of the evening eating together, continuing conversations, and dancing with abandon.

Great Barrington residents Rajni Acharya and Kashmira Madhuwala and their friends, family members and colleagues proudly represented their Gujarati heritage in discussion and on the dance floor.

"There needs to be more of this," Acharya said. "We got to meet different people from all around the world and we got to be who we are. Apart from our differences in languages and experiences the one thing that stands out is we are human."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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