Newcomers Among Us seminar series joins the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences

On May 18th, 2005, the Center held a Newcomers Among Us seminar at the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences (SCALE) in Somerville, Massachusetts. The participants were drawn largely from the SCALE staff itself, all of who are involved in ESOL, literacy, and other basic education classes that largely serve the local immigrant community. Several participants hailed from the field of family therapy and also have an immigrant clientele. Diverse nationalities were represented by those in attendance, including American, Venezuelan, Haitian, and Israeli.

"People have created a new silence...a new silence about race and class in the United States."

... professional situations should not necessarily evoke our sympathies but rather our acceptance... "Can we relate to a maid who IS a maid?"

The seminar began with a discussion of poetry. "The Maid," by Serra Brachi, evokes the experiences of a well-educated and successful woman who is continually mistaken for a maid, a typist, a nanny, and so on by members of the host society. One participant noted that such stereotypes are rarely discussed due to concerns about political correctness. "People have created a new silence," this participant declared, "a new silence about race and class in the United States." Another participant reacted quite differently to the same poem, noting that "it elevates the grievances of an upper class person who dislikes being misidentified as working class." Many of his clientele had working class jobs in their home countries and continue in similar lines of work here in the United States. Their professional situations should not necessarily evoke our sympathies but rather our acceptance. Another participant asked, "Can we relate to a maid who IS a maid?"

The most provocative discussions during the seminar were in response to Necessary Targets: a Story of Women and War by Eve Ensler. This play revolves around the encounters that two American women therapists have with the women in a Bosnian refugee camp whom they have been sent to "help." As the play progresses, it becomes clear that this help is not necessarily desired nor do the visiting therapists always have the skill, understanding, or delicacy required to make a meaningful connection with the victims. Especially problematic is the agenda of the therapist for whom Bosnia is simply one stop on a full travel itinerary to post-conflict regions. Her goal is to produce a book out of interviews with women war victims so that "the world will know their stories."

Seminar participants had a variety of powerful responses to the play. One adult educator told the story of a Bosnian refugee who came to SCALE in the early 90's, asking for help in very limited English. As the refugee was missing an arm, it was assumed that she was requesting help to obtain a prosthetic limb. After this, the woman did not return to SCALE for several years, at which time she was established with a good job but was still without a prosthesis. When asked if she had never found help in her endeavor, the Bosnian woman responded, this time in very good English, that she had never wanted an arm, that she had been trying on her first visit to ask for help in finding a job. She explained that when she lost her arm, she also lost her husband and child. She intended, therefore, to keep her missing limb as a reminder of this much greater loss. The participant who offered this moving story described how it made her think about the assumptions she had made about the needs of this client, not understanding the power of her past experiences and how they might shape her life once she was resettled. The story served as a reminder to those assembled, as did the Ensler play, that working in a helping profession requires constant reflection and great sensitivity.

Another participant noted how the play evoked the difficulties he sometimes faces in his job as an employment counselor to refugees. These challenges have to do not only with professional distance but also with the definition of roles and relative power between service provider and client. These issues may have particular resonance for those who work with refugees or others who have seen their lives severely disrupted. A similar difficulty arises in the Ensler play, when one of the therapists says rather condescendingly to one of the war victims, "Teach me how to help you. I am a doctor." The Bosnian woman replies, "I was a doctor too, before the war. I was the head of the pediatrics unit in Prijedor's main hospital. Now I am a refugee."

The May 18th seminar was an excellent example of how literature can inspire a deep discussion of professional experiences and challenges. The Newcomers Among Us series will continue to be organized around the Boston area over the next year.