The Newcomers Among Us: Sharing Experiences and Learning Lessons

Seminar participants discuss contemporary immigration in the Boston community

A sample of the literature discussed during the seminar

On April 21, 2004 the Center and the Network for Newcomer Advocacy (NENA), in collaboration with the Framingham State College Center for Global Education, hosted "The Newcomers Among Us: Sharing Experiences and Learning Lessons." The day-long seminar, held at the Department of Public Health in Roxbury, MA, was the second in a series to be held in communities around Massachusetts. Participants explored issues surrounding contemporary immigration in Roxbury and surrounding neighborhoods in Boston. The group was composed of 18 participants, from a wide range of professions and backgrounds, whose work directly or indirectly brings them into contact with immigrants and refugees. Participants were originally from Colombia, Peru, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Bosnia, Iran, Brazil, as well as the United States. They represented the fields of health and mental health, social work, translation, international education, career counseling, and community advocacy.

The seminar series follows the successful Brandeis Seminars in Humanities and the Professions (H&P) technique of using literature as a point of departure for reflection and discussion. For more information on the H&P program or to read about past seminars click here.

In preparation for the seminar, participants read the play Necessary Targets by Eve Ensler, the short stories "Who's Irish" by Gish Jen and "The Red Dress" by Patricia Benoît, and a selection of local news articles on related issues. As a group, participants read poetry from various authors. Discussions were led by facilitators, who elicited a variety of responses from the participants.

Necessary Targets explores the relationships among seven women, two of whom are sent by the United Nations to provide assistance to women refugees in a Bosnian camp. Seminar participants discussed how they felt about the characters in the play, especially the service providers whose personal and professional reasons for coming to the camp seem complex and unclear. The "Red Dress" tells the story of a Haitian exile whose one request from a volunteer is a red dress to wear on Valentine's Day. Both pieces prompted a discussion that touched on the motivations of volunteers and service workers to work in their fields, the legitimacy of needs of those on the receiving side, and the misunderstandings that can arise between service workers and their "clientele."

"Who's Irish" explores how immigrant groups in the United States can be both the targets and practitioners of stereotyping. One participant sympathized with a main character in the story who disagrees with her daughter's childrearing techniques. She commented that, in her community, older people feel that parents in America are "too liberal" with their children. Another participant described the prevalence of a nostalgia for "the way things used to be in the old country" with regard to everything from the taste of vegetables to raising children. Others empathized with the character of the daughter, describing how they want to raise their children differently than the way they were raised themselves. It is clear that styles of childrearing are often a topic of conversation in immigrant communities.

"The Newcomers Among Us" seminar provided a welcome opportunity for human service providers to meet colleagues and to explore news ways of thinking and interconnecting within their professional community. The principal outcome of this series will be the creation of a collaborative network of professionals in the Boston area who can consult and advise each other about the challenges that arise in the course of their work with immigrants and refugees. If you are interested in attending a future seminar, please contact Leigh Swigart swigart@brandeis.edu.

Click here for the spring 2004 issue of the Ethics Center newsletter, Ethically Speaking, which highlights the seminar series. (pdf format)