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Journey to citizenship

Speaking about the immigration experience, panelists (left to right) Milica Stanfel, Dr. Sandra Lara, Susan Cassidy and Linda Uscola are pictured with speaker Martha Castonon (right) and moderator Wendy Dieser at the podium. Florence Hedeen (not pictured) coordinated the event. Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series about a recent immigration forum hosted by the Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters.

The journey to citizenship is costly in terms of both time and money, but for two local immigrants who shared their stories it is a priceless gift to pass on to your children.

Teachers of English Language Learners (ELL) in Park Rapids who were on the panel talked about what being an immigrant is like from the student's point of view while struggling with a whole new way of life.

Guest speaker Martha Castoñon works at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and encouraged the audience to remember how their own family came to the U.S. and to "put yourself in their shoes."

Journey to citizenship

Dr. Sandra Lara is a dentist in Park Rapids.

"I have been here for six years," she said. "I'm kind of nervous because this is the first time I'm sharing my experience as an immigrant. My husband, my son who was three years old and myself moved from Colombia looking for the American dream because my country had been through a lot of problems and violence."

They made the decision to move to another country in 1999.

"My sister-in-law was a professor in a university," Lara said. "She said, 'Why don't you come here and apply?' But it was a lot of requirement and papers. It's a long process. Just to get a visa as a student took two days going through the interview and three trips to the embassy."

Finally, they got the OK to move to the U.S. They sold all their belongings to help pay for the trip, and Lara found a paid position as a resident in the hospital to earn a living for the three of them. They arrived in the winter, which she said "wasn't what we were used to, but we had very good people who gave us jackets."

Their journey to citizenship took 13 years and cost $50,000 for the three of them. Their other two children were born in the U.S.

Lara had to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes before she could start dental school. She also had to take dental boards.

"After six months, I was able to start dental school in Kansas City," she said. "I had to record all my classes because I wasn't able to understand very well what the teachers said. I was also always reading, listening and watching television in English, but I couldn't get rid of my accent."

After one year of studying, she was told the residency position for foreign students was being eliminated.

"We had to call our country and tell our family we're going to have to come back because we don't have the money to stay here," she said. "They said, 'No, no, no, no, no, you stay there. It's a great opportunity and we will help you.' So between my parents and my husband's parents they were able to help us during the three years of dental school."

The process of changing from a student visa to a work visa was another complicated step.

"We didn't have the knowledge to do it by ourselves, so we had to hire immigration lawyers, which is very expensive," she said.

That step involved providing proof of employment. Next came a green card, and finally citizenship.

"We found a company here in Minnesota that was willing to hire me as a dentist," she said.

"Working as a dentist for a non-profit organization, I was able to see patients that were temporary workers and had kids. They didn't know any English, so I was able to talk to them in Spanish."

Milica Stanfel lives in the Nevis area and immigrated with her family as a child. Born in Germany, her parents came to the U.S. after her grandparents had already immigrated.

"My grandparents came right after World War II," Stanfel said. "In Europe at that time, they had a lot of people that were called 'displaced persons,' and they fell into that category."

She said her family's story is "sort of a fairy tale" compared to Lara's.

"I'm going to take you back to my parents who were refugees and brought us here from Europe," she told the audience. "My father, who is Yugoslavian, had no problem being vetted but it took my mother, who is German, eight years. Finally, by the time they were allowed to go, they had three kids. I was 7, and we went on a boat for 10 days crossing the ocean. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking how glad I was to get off the boat. We had to go through immigration and they cut our hair and tried to change our name. I was devastated by shaving my head; that was kind of traumatic."

The family moved into a Yugoslavian neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio.

"It was just like being in Yugoslavia," Stanfel said. "I went to school, but didn't speak English at first. My parents didn't speak English either. Being an immigrant was tough. I can remember my mom didn't know where to go if we were sick. There weren't many services. You depended on your community."

Her parents became American citizens shortly after their arrival, but Stanfel didn't become a citizen until she was 18.

"I think it cost $150," she said. "I had to go to civics class, even though I graduated from an American high school. My children are actually first the first generation in our family to be born in America. I'm glad my parents immigrated here. I can remember my mom would speak German on the city bus, and I would ask her to please not speak German because people were staring at us. Now I'm proud to teach my children German."

Afraid to attend

Linda Uscola, who teaches English to adult language learners, shared the words of an immigrant in his 20s who has lived here two years and told her he was afraid to attend the forum.

"I thought it was important to get his opinions on what he thinks of of changing his life and coming here to Park Rapids," Uscola said.

The man told her he believes 150 to 200 immigrants live in our community. "There are two main reasons why we left our country," he said. "The first one is poverty and lack of opportunities and the second one is the feeling of insecurity. My native country is an extremely dangerous country to live in."

He said that while most people are kind and friendly, "we know some people do not like immigrants. I have faced racist comments coming from some of the customers where I work."

One thing he would like those in the community to understand is how hard it is for immigrants to live away from everything and everyone they know.

"The only thing immigrants need when they come to live in a different community is to be accepted," he said. "There are a lot of things I like about Park Rapids, and one of them is to see how people realize there is a need to communicate with immigrants and try to hire bilingual people to facilitate interpretations when needed."

He also shared how learning the language makes dealing with housing, health care, school and employment difficult because there are big differences in the way those things work in foreign countries.

His goal is to continue his education. "I want to learn new things and improve old skills to use them as a bridge to help people," he said.

'Eye-opening experiences'

Uscola is a second-generation American from Germany. She says teaching English to adults in Park Rapids has been "a major eye-opening experience."

"What I have found is most of my students are the most hard working I have ever met," she said. It's very difficult to come to class and study a language when you are working 60-plus hours a week. If you would put yourself in that situation, you would realize how hard it is if you've just finished a 12-hour shift there's not much time for family or sleep. The dedication that my students show when they come to class is amazing."

She said that family is the most important thing to her students.

"They all care about their children being educated and being accepted in the community, and they will go to all ends of sacrifice to be able to protect those kids, the same way that you and I do," she said.

"The other thing that I have learned is the unbelievable difficulties involved in becoming a legal citizen of the United States," said Uscola. "It's a very limited set of qualifications that allow you to come here legally. The amount of time and money it takes to become a citizen once you're here is mind-boggling. I have students who pay up to $2,000 a month to attorneys to try to become a legal citizen. They realize that this is going to take, if it's at all possible, from three to 10 years. When you're also doing that in another language it's even harder."

Susan Cassidy is an ELL teacher in the Park Rapids district and a third-generation American whose ancestors immigrated from Germany and Sweden.

She told how one student came to her not knowing any English.

"She had not been to school, period, ever," she recalls. "When I lifted up a pencil she did not know what to do with it."

This year, Cassidy has 30 students in grades K-12: four in the elementary, six in the middle school and 10 in the high school. Six of her current students speak no English or very little English. This year's group includes students from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"With a little care, nurturing and understanding there's a lot of potential to succeed," she said.

She shared an essay from one of her high school students telling how they celebrate the holidays with their family: buying apples, oranges, bananas and coconut to make punch, eating tamales and tortillas prepared by aunts and mothers, and preparing fireworks with cousins to set off at midnight to celebrate the New Year.

"You could feel the warmth of that family," she said.

In the classroom, Cassidy said her students are always respectful They are also starting to participate in extracurricular activities like football, wrestling, cross-country and drama.

"They are starting to feel comfortable and I hope that will lead the way into a little more integration with the other students," she said.

DREAMers an emotional issue

DREAMers refers to children who were in the U.S. by June 15, 2012. Qualifying for the program requires extensive paperwork and documentation.

"The DREAMers are kids that were brought when they were young," Castoñon said. "Immigration is a very emotional issue, because there are those who say they should be in line like everybody else, and yes, there's some truth to that, but what do you do with everyone who's here already? You just can't deport them all."

She asked audience members to close their eyes and imagine they moved to a different country with their family when they were very young.

"You're doing well in school and school activities, you have friends, you're in the 4-H club and then suddenly your parents tell you to ask the school for these papers to file for you," she said. "Suddenly, as a child, you live with that fear of being sent back to a country that is not home."

Castoñon said some families are being sent back to the country where they used to live.

"The kids don't even know the native language and they're not used to the customs in that country," she said. "It's very hard on them."

Seeking the American Dream

Castoñon told stories of people she helped gain citizenship through her work at the Immigrant Law Center during the past two years and how it has opened so many doors to their new lives in the U.S.

"The immigration process is very, very complicated," she said. "I'm so proud of them all. Many people come because, like your ancestors, they want a better life and better opportunities. They started at the bottom, working in farms and factories. Our nation is made of immigrants. They all come with their customs and their language and blend it into the system."

She said that immigrants come to work hard for a better way of life for their children.

"You hear the comment that the immigrants are just coming to take jobs," she said. "If you see a lot of the local immigrants, they're not working as teachers or law enforcement. They're doing the jobs that many in the local community do not want to do. They're working the turkey farms and dairy farms. They are working very long hours, the pay isn't the greatest, and sometimes in bad conditions. They are doing the jobs many of the locals do not want to do."

"My message," said Castoñen, "is to look deep into your hearts and place yourself in their shoes. We have been very blessed in the U.S. that we have not had the struggles with violence and poverty that those in many other countries have faced. You're here today because of those who came here, some many, many years ago. My parents achieved the American dream when they saw all of their children graduate from high school."