As an ESOL instructor working with refugees, I am always amazed at the perseverance and strength of character my students possess; these New Americans repeatedly demonstrate just what the “American Dream” means. One such student is Shantel, who has achieved so much in a very short time through sheer tenacity, a desire for a better life, and hard work.
Shantale’s family escaped from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an African country torn apart by civil war and famine which led to the loss of some five million lives between 1994 and 2003 and is still plagued by violence today. The family walked over 1,000 treacherous miles to Rwanda and began life in a refugee camp where Shantale was born. Camp life was extremely difficult with food and basic survival as the focus of every day. Formal education was sporadic and unstructured; yet, Shantale never lost her desire to learn and dream.
The child became a young woman, met and married her husband, and had two daughters before being granted refugee status and a chance to immigrate to the US. But immigration would be at a cost: She would have to leave everyone she had ever loved and who had loved her and given her support throughout her turbulent life. She would also have to leave camp life, the only life she had ever known. Since her US arrival with her husband, her two children and her young nephew, her family has flourished and has a new family member, a third beautiful baby girl born in the States. Her husband is employed, the family has established a home, and they have become part of a Christian community which focuses on outreach to help others.
Life is still challenging and difficult, and money is an issue, but Shantale is hopeful. She always tells me that she wants to make a difference and questions if she is doing enough to achieve. I chuckle to myself and assure her that she is doing just fine since this is one determined young lady who is not even 25 years old; yet, in the past year she has become an asset to her community. She is functional in English and has progressed to the higher level ESOL college classes at FSCJ, she is the loving matriarch of her own family, she has obtained a learner’s driver’s permit, she now speaks three languages, she gives back by volunteering as a tutor to other ESOL students, and she has acclimated to her new society by becoming a minor fashionista- a talent as she says she developed by the necessity of having to make something out of nothing. But one of her most important achievements is that she has developed a plan!
Shantale wants to be a teacher. She understands that since she never had an opportunity for a formal education that achieving her goal will be a long haul, but she is willing to make her dream a reality, and I am confident that she will make it happen. I so admire this vivacious, young woman who has reaffirmed to me the possibility of true grit and humanity in this world, and I feel we need more Shantale's welcomed as members of our country.
Our bright students have similar stories to Shantale's, they are refugees 18 years old or older who have been in the U.S. for less than 5 years. They come from diverse countries such as the Congo, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Cuba, Burma, and Sudan. They need English to get greater job opportunities and make a better life for themselves and their families here is Jacksonville.
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