You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: Unless you're Native American, you or your ancestors came to this country as an immigrant.
Barzan Malazada was one of those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," to quote the Statue of Liberty's message. Malazada is from Iraq's Kurdistan region. He and his family fled Saddam Hussein's reign of terror in 1996; they were targeted because his father was working with a United States-backed charity.
He remembers vividly what life was like there.
"Every day, blood flowing like a river," the 33-year-old says. "So many people, so many children, so many old men, so many houses blowing up. For decades.
"Those people are hurting, those people don't want to live anymore. Those people are trying every single day to have a better life."
He and his family — his parents, five sisters and three brothers — spent two months in Guam learning about American culture. They were granted political asylum and headed to Colorado. They'd heard it was a beautiful state, and when they arrived, they saw mountains that reminded them of home.
But this is home now.
The Malazadas, who are Muslim, have received help through Catholic Charities' Family Immigration Services program. The staff welcomes people of all faiths — or none — and helps them attain their goals.
"Whatever color you are, black, white, whatever country you come from," he says, "you're like a member of the family in this program, no matter what."
Trying to reunite
Malazada has fulfilled many of his dreams: He is a citizen, owns a home, co-owns a business, and is studying to be a nurse. His greatest dream now is to bring his wife, Zhilia, to Colorado Springs and start his own family.
But he hasn't forgotten his compatriots pursuing the same dreams.
"These people are already coming from hell. ... United States is heaven. They're coming from the fire. I [saw] it with my own eyes, the reality. I [saw] it every single day, the gunshots. Nobody wants to live like that."
The program, which started in 2008, serves 10 counties in central Colorado. In fiscal year 2010-2011, 16 clients became citizens and 26 received their green cards, denoting permanent resident status.
Those numbers sound modest, but that's with just two part-time accredited immigration counselors.
"Sometimes folks come to us and they've spent thousands and thousands of dollars on people who say they can represent them or get them legal help," says Corey Almond, Catholic Charities' vice president of FIS and Parish Social Ministries. "We sit down with them and realize it could be just a simple issue. So that's our job, to be a source of reliable information, affordable for everyday people."
Only 16 percent of the program's budget comes from fees charged to clients. It receives no government funding, and relies on grants and community support, like the funds it will get from the Give! campaign.
The FIS program also offers English-as-a-second-language classes, which dovetail with LitSource, the Pikes Peak Library District's adult literacy and ESL program. The two staffs often collaborate.
Stories to tell
LitSource coordinator Teona Shainidze-Krebs also has an immigration story.
She was born and raised in Georgia, then a republic of the Soviet Union; when the country splintered in 1991, her family moved to Russia. Her grandfather had been minister of justice under the Soviets, which left the family vulnerable to political persecution.
"It took me about a year to become fluent in Russian," Shainidze-Krebs recalls. "I had to go to high school, and they don't have classes for foreigners in Russia. They say, 'Too bad if you don't speak the language.'"
The teen also learned English, then went to college to study linguistics and added German to her repertoire. Her refusal to apply for Russian citizenship prompted questions from the KGB, the infamous security agency.
After earning her master's degree, she was working as an ESL instructor in 2002 when she volunteered to interpret for a group from a Colorado Springs-based ministry. She and James Krebs, a missionary, became friends; they fell in love and married in 2006.
Shainidze-Krebs was working on her doctorate, but chose love over linguistics and moved to Colorado. The Pikes Peak Library District hired her as an ESL instructor in 2007, and she was promoted to literacy coordinator in 2009.
The PPLD's efforts to improve literacy in native-English speakers launched in 1988 with a six-month grant. Administration and staff recognized the community's overwhelming need, and made the Right to Read program a permanent part of the library's mission. The name was changed to LitSource in 2002 and the focus evolved to emphasize ESL.
Overall, students have come from 93 countries; since 2000, 2,248 volunteers have helped 3,926 people. The free program focuses on learners 18 and older. One student, from Iran, was 89 years old.
Need for tutors
About 30 people are waiting for LitSource tutors, who go through background checks before receiving six hours of training. What qualities do tutors need?
"Compassion and flexibility and to be independent and decisive," Shainidze-Krebs explains. "A lot of people have great motives to come and help, but they want to be in charge. But no, our learners are in charge."
LitSource offerings include one-on-one tutoring and groups that teach math, social studies and English conversation, reading and writing. Typically, it takes about seven years for a non-English speaker to become truly fluent.
Give! funds will help buy more computers — Shainidze-Krebs envisions laptops for home study, with Skype, so tutors can monitor pronunciation. Home-based learning will cut down on expenses for volunteers and students, and relieve scheduling hassles. She also needs more books for the program.
At 100 percent, Georgia's literacy is much higher than the U.S. rate, but Shainidze-Krebs says this country is way ahead on volunteerism.
"I thought, 'People just do that for nothing?' That's a great part of this country, that we give."
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