Amanda McCormick sits next to me in a downtown cafe and takes a sip of matcha tea. The 26-year-old ESL teacher is ready to relax after a busy day. McCormick works through the Buffalo Public Schools Adult Education Division, teaching English to refugees in graduating “levels.” This program helps all immigrants and refugees to eventually land jobs and acclimate to society. McCormick’s boyfriend, Wilmer Peralta, is sitting by her side. He hails from the Republic of Ecuador. As a young 13-year-old kid, Peralta had to learn English as a second language himself, when he moved to Manhattan. The two have been dating for two years and are a modern day multilingual couple.
Karibu News: How did you get involved with teaching refugees?
Amanda McCormick: That wasn’t my initial plan, but I began volunteering for Journey’s End Refugee Services. They used to have a program on Saturdays with kids and helping them socialize with other children in English. From there, I got a job with Jericho Road teaching English at the homes of the refugees who couldn’t make it to school, due to transportation or child care issues. I had an internship where I was a student teacher at the International Institute. I loved it, so I stuck around until they hired me. I have been involved with the refugee community since 2008, but it’s my third year teaching officially.
What do immigrants and refugees that come here need the most?
AM: A big problem that we are running into now is having students who are really well-educated, and know different languages and had professional careers. When they moved here, their college credits didn’t transfer. Some have to start at the bottom [of their career] and work their way up. I had a student from Brazil who was a physical therapist and had a Doctorate in Brazil. Then she came here and was told that she had to start over. The mental health aspect is growing. Jewish Family Services offers a lot by reaching out and getting immigrants to understand that it’s okay to ask for help – and that one can succeed by asking for help with mental health issues.
How have you seen your students evolve?
AM: When I first started teaching, I taught Level Two, which is low. Then I was moved to a Level 7 class. In Level Two, I had students who had just gotten to the United States and barely spoke English. Then when I taught Level 7, the students made their way back up to me. One of my students now was enrolled at ECC and is now at UB Medical School. Seeing them become comfortable and have this as their new life, getting jobs… it is very cool. Previously, it seemed almost impossible to a lot of them.
Has Buffalo adapted to all of the different languages coming into the city? I heard that 85 of the 200 languages spoken in New York State are in Buffalo.
AM: In terms of the social aspects, people are pretty accepting of them in the city. A lot of the suburbs are not really exposed, so a lot of the negative feedback is because people don’t know about it, since they are not around it. The only problem – which is not anyone’s fault, it’s just the nature of the situation – is a lack of interpreting and translating within schools, hospitals, and the police force. I think the Buffalo Police Dept. has just hired two former refugees as translators. It’s something we need to work with as we go. Nobody here can go to a school and study Karen – that needs to come from the people coming here and who are learning English, so they can eventually teach us their native language.
What are some misconceptions?
AM: If you see everything on the news and don’t experience it firsthand, the focus is all on the negative – especially now with the Muslim population. There is an ethnic stigma against it, and people don’t realize how terrible it was for the refugees here. Their life wasn’t easy and they suffered in their native countries, and they are trying to escape. The majority of them are strong-willed, resilient, and optimistic.
When you moved as a young person, what was it like for you and your parents to come to the US?
Wilmer Peralta: My parents were already here. I still lived in Ecuador with my aunts and my grandmother. My parents tricked me into coming for vacation. I didn’t know I was moving. It was a culture shock, because there’s a misconception of the US vs. my home country. They called this country the “Land of the Free,” but I was in an apartment, surrounded by four walls. Compared to what it was back home… I had a backyard, and a soccer field, and every day I would play soccer with my friends. That changed; in the winter time we didn’t really go out. For me, that was the most difficult thing to adapt to. Also, I went back to eighth grade instead of nine. I took all bilingual classes because I didn’t know English. Some kids wouldn’t talk to me. I went to having tons of friends to just having a few. It was a difficult transition.
I went to PS 197 in Manhattan. In New York City, there is a prep school that will help newcomers to the country obtain high school credits. At first, your classes are in Spanish and then you take ESL classes in levels. By the time I was done, I was in 9th grade and then transitioned to a different high school in NYC, and then graduated. I came to Buffalo in 2003 for the first time, to do an open house at Buff State. I loved the city, decided to come here, and never went back! All my family – my parents, brother, and sister – live in NYC.
Do you think you developed more ambition and drive because you had to work harder when you first got here?
WP: Personally, I don’t. I don’t think I need to prove myself to anybody. I am who I am. I have done really well for myself so far. I do for my parents, at a certain point. They expect a lot from me since I am the first child.
Does Spanish come into your career at all?
WP: Yes, I work for HSBC and since it’s a global bank, it comes into my work in a number of ways. Argentina, Mexico, Chile are the countries I’ve worked with the most. I use my language and it’s easier to communicate.
Since it’s Valentine’s Day, does Ecuador have their own special traditions of love and romance?
WP: Growing up in Ecuador, I grew up with my grandmother and my three aunts, I was the only guy in a house full of women. I saw my three aunts going through the period of having boyfriends, and the most common thing is chocolates and flowers. Maybe a teddy bear. I’m not sure why.
Getting back to ESL classes, what is the day-to-day routine?
AM: The beginning levels are focused on speaking and being able to communicate at a comfortable pace. The higher level classes are a bridge between ESL classes and the GED. A lot of times their math is great and they are educated in science. The problem is academic English. We cater to that. As teachers, as far as curriculum it depends on what the teacher thinks is best for the students. My focus is reading, writing, and grammar.
It depends on the person as to how they adapt. We had a new student the other day, and whenever there is a new student we introduce ourselves. The question always comes up, “Are you married and do you have kids?” In other countries, if you are a woman that is your job and many want that for other people too. To many, since I’m 26 and not married, it’s the worst thing. The family aspect around here is different, like how we move out before we are ready to get married. Divorce is not understood along with other social things. Arranged marriages occur in other countries, since there is trust in parents knowing what’s best. The cultures in other countries are more traditional and family-oriented. Building romantic relationships is not the same as it is here. Here, we do it to find a life partner. There you might need someone to support you.
I had a student who had someone break into his house. I told him, “Next time that happens, call 911.” He didn’t believe the police would actually help him. He didn’t feel like he could reach out. But people adjust pretty quickly since they have to, and it’s cool for them to communicate their feelings in my class, because it’s so diverse.
Does everyone get along?
AM: Yes, when I used to teach the lower levels, the students’ minimal English still allowed them to communicate with each other. Somehow they would build these really happy friendships. These two women – from two totally different countries who did not speak the same language – bonded with their small vocabulary. My class is also diverse with age. I had a 21-year-old student and a 70-year-old student in the same class, and they would help each other.