Windows and Mirrors - Willkommen, Bienvenue, Salam - Florence Sprague - October 2021

One of my sisters taught German at a private school for decades. She is a fluent speaker of German and knowledgeable about the minutiae of German grammar. In retirement, and particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown, she has been trading German lessons for Spanish lessons with another retired colleague who taught Spanish. They meet on Zoom to speak, and give one another practice exercises and options for exploration on DuoLingo. I admire her for even taking on this enterprise.

What is interesting is that despite being an expert at one foreign language, and despite having had some Spanish in high school, she often complains that she just can’t seem to remember all of the new vocabulary she is supposed to be learning. Not long ago she remarked that she has a new sympathy with older immigrants trying to learn English and struggling. Ahhh.

Lack of English proficiency is often a touchpoint when people are not comfortable with immigration. Many seem irritated when an accent is unfamiliar or the grammar or word choice is awkward. It is easy for current generations to forget—or never to have realized—that during the major waves of European immigration to the upper Midwest and Minnesota there was a profusion of newspapers, churches, schools, and voting information in German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and other languages, not just for a brief time, but for many years.

This is worth recalling today as we anticipate welcoming a new wave of immigrants from Afghanistan, to join the Karen and other Burmese, the Somali, the Ethiopian and Oromo, the Hmong, the Vietnamese, the Mexican and Salvadoran, the Liberian, and so many others already enriching our community.

Leaving your home country is wrenching. Garrison Keillor said it well when he wrote:

“Heroes, all of them – at least they’re my heroes, especially the immigrants, especially the refugees. Everyone makes fun of New York cabdrivers who can’t speak English: they’re heroes. To give up your country is the hardest thing a person can do: to leave the old familiar places and ship out over the edge of the world to America and learn everything over again different than you learned as a child, learn the language that you will never be so smart or funny in as your true language. It takes years to start to feel semi-normal. And yet people still come – Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, Ethiopia, Iran, Haiti, Korea, Cuba, Chile, and they come on behalf of their children, and they come for freedom. Not for our land (Russia is as beautiful), not for our culture (they have their own, thank you), not for our system of government (they don’t even know about it, may not even agree with it), but for freedom. They are heroes who make an adventure on our behalf, showing by their struggle how precious beyond words freedom is, and if we knew their stories, we could not keep back the tears.” (emphasis added)

Welcome to the neighborhood.