On Sunday, April 28, the Winchester Multicultural Network, in conjunction with the YWCA’s nation-wide Stand Against Racism campaign, provided a moving and awareness-raising program featuring the stories of local women who are immigrants, as well as a presentation regarding legal and systemic challenges facing immigrants. Salma Abounadi, originally from Morocco; Chrep Meitner, originally from Cambodia; Phuni Meston, born in a settlement in India after her parents fled Tibet following the Chinese invasion; and Juanita Zerda, originally from Colombia; shared personal experiences and insights. Matt Segal, the Legal Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, provided information about legal challenges presented by the current administration, and what the ACLU is fighting in court.

Commonalities in the immigrant experience

While each immigrant has their own personal story, common themes emerged. Many had faced challenges in their country of origin, and we heard about extreme poverty, violent conflict and genocide, and oppressive political regimes. We also learned about challenges faced once in the United States, including: restricted opportunities, depending upon the type of visa; racism; dealing with the feelings of loss about what was left behind; the difficulty adapting to new (often unspoken) norms, without guidance; a sense of isolation, heightened by language difficulties and lack of translations; and a feeling of carrying a national burden for those still in the country of origin.

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Personal stories

Salma spoke powerfully about racism she experienced when she became outspoken and civically engaged here; she also expressed appreciation for being able to be politically active without concern for her physical safety. Chrep shared poignant examples of what it was like as a young child to come to the US, after only living in a refugee camp, including going to school in what her mother and she thought was an adorable outfit, and winding up being teased because her mother had unknowingly bought a pair of pajamas. Phuni spoke about the trauma and abuse she experienced having been brought here as a teenager under false pretenses, and she stated clearly that she is sharing her story now with a sense of power to raise awareness about immigrants’ experiences and help others. She stressed that immigrants arrive, not to exploit resources, but to live their lives as best they can and contribute to the society they are now living in. Juanita spoke about the challenges inherent in letting go of fear, having grown up in very dangerous circumstances; she also stressed the importance of connecting to the community through civic engagement. All of the women spoke about the importance of loving connections in their lives.

Matt Segal, Legal Director of the ACLU of MA

Matt Segal underscored the importance of people hearing individual narratives. He stated that without knowing stories like the ones shared, it is too easy to hold onto the myth of meritocracy – that we who are here earned our place here, rather than having been born here “by lottery.” Matt noted that if his grandfather had needed to know how to speak English, or had to demonstrate specific skills needed in the US at the time of his arrival, that he would not be here. He also talked about laws and systems designed to punish immigrants who are trying to establish legal residency and/or obtain visas.

Stories as a vehicle for social change

Sharing stories is an important way to promote social justice. Stories can start a conversation, break a stigma, create an opportunity for people to craft their own sense of belonging, and transform vulnerability into strength. The power of storytelling promotes empathy and connection, demonstrates the human experience behind the “numbers,” and can inspire action. Following the panel, participants and panelists shared a number of suggested actions: keep talking, especially to friends and neighbors about ways to promote a welcoming community; ask recent immigrants about the type of help they may need; advocate for supportive services like translations; ensure that resources are available and that information about these resources is widely-disseminated; build community support through social gatherings and outreach; and help individuals become more effective at advocating for themselves.

The Network’s new Immigrant Justice Committee

At the close of the program, Seeme Moreira, Co-Chair of the Network’s newly formed Immigrant Justice Committee, shared information about that Committee’s goals and objectives for Winchester, specifically, establishing the Safe Community Act in town and, a legal framework for voting in local elections for non-citizens. Anyone interested in working with this Committee can contact the Network at office@wmcn.org.