There’s seemingly no end to the stories Laurann Gallitto Patel can tell about working with immigrant and refugee families. Some are heartwarming. Others are heartbreaking. All have been helpful in her nearly eight years of helping them adjust to life in America through its public schools.
“I see school as a place where immigrant and refugee families can plug into the community,” said Patel, midlands regional liaison for the Carolina Family Engagement Center, a federal grant project within the University of South Carolina College of Education. “When I have worked with new American families, no matter the country or background, everyone said, ‘We aspire to come to this country for our children, to give them better educational opportunities.’ That’s a common thread I’ve seen with all parents. Everyone aspires to give their best to their children.”
Patel can point to her own parents as examples. They moved to Long Island, New York, from Italy when Patel was almost two. While her father, originally from Venezuela, could speak English, she and her mother spoke only Italian. She and her mother learned English together, cuddled on the couch after school. Their time together, progressing from pre-kindergarten books to the Harry Potter series, is one of her happiest memories.
Not every immigrant student has such a smooth transition. Patel recalls one boy from Syria who walked out of his classroom every afternoon to visit his younger siblings in theirs. Alerted to his “disruptive” behavior, Patel went to work. She learned that in his homeland, their school had been bombed before the family’s resettlement. He was simply checking on the safety of his siblings.
“The family trusted me, so we were able to go deeper,” she said. “I think about that and now if I ever encounter frustration with a student’s behavior, I always try to understand the larger picture to get students and families the support that they need.”
Many of Patel’s experiences come from her previous work as an education coordinator with the International Rescue Committee in New York and Lutheran Refugee and Immigrant Services in Columbia, SC. She’s helped refugee families from Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Central America, Vietnam, and Syria. When she brought backpacks and school supplies as part of the family’s school orientation, many would applaud, celebrate, and even sing in excitement and pride.
“They were excited they were going to school,” Patel said. “In refugee camps, or due to other factors of displacement, they often didn’t have access to consistent education. There are so many other things going on under the surface when a family is transitioning to a new country, but parents and caregivers really do care about their children going to school. They see the American school system as a pathway to their child having a better life.”
‘A sense of connection’
In her work with the Carolina Family Engagement Center, Patel has helped school and teacher partners connect with community partner organizations to support immigrant students and families. At Jackson Creek Elementary School in Columbia, she worked with the faculty and staff to develop family engagement activities for its recently resettled Spanish-speaking families. Teachers Maria Herron and Caitlyn McDonald planned an evening event that included programming with the principal, librarians, ESOL teacher, reading coach and music teacher. CFEC Specialist Julia Lopez-Robertson offered literacy learning programs that were inclusive of Spanish-speaking families from across Central and South America and Spain. Literacy instruction and educational packets were provided so parents could practice reading with their students. The South Carolina Center for Community Literacy donated books in Spanish and English. The parents brought their native foods to share and helped the English speakers with their Spanish.
By inviting the parents to contribute and participate, the team created a way for the newcomers to feel connected. In a welcoming, festive way, parents and faculty became acquainted, everyone giving and taking, making future virtual events easier when the Covid-19 pandemic made in-person collaborations impossible.
It was exactly the kind of event Patel wished her mother could have attended, back in the late 1980s when the family lived on Long Island. And indeed, Liliana Gallitto first connected with others through her daughter’s school, serving food at school events and chaperoning field trips. Still, as with any immigrant, life wasn’t easy. Not yet fluent in English, without a driver’s license or a community that spoke Italian, Liliana became isolated. And because educators at the time believed children would get confused learning more than one language simultaneously, Patel listened to her teachers and stopped speaking Italian.
That thinking has been debunked, and there are other reasons to encourage children to maintain their native language. “When immigrant families stop speaking their language, they lose part of their culture,” Patel says. “Children and grandchildren can’t communicate with each other.”
Not until Patel studied in Rome was she able to practice the language she was relearning at Converse College in Spartanburg, where she graduated with degrees in history and modern languages.
“There are so many other things that define being an American and exclusively knowing English is not the only way,” she says.
For her, being an American has more to do with a shared value system.
“What it is for me is a sense of connection and community and loving your neighbors,” she said. “I just wish we could value each other’s different experiences more, particularly of unheard stories from those who have been traditionally marginalized or left out of the conversation.
“There’s diversity within America,” she continued. “In South Carolina, 74-plus languages are spoken at home by multilingual families. All people are inherently worthy of humanity, not just because they look or speak a certain way. That idea should not be controversial.”
‘They saw I was safe’
Patel was seven when her family left Long Island for Myrtle Beach and in college when she became a U.S. citizen. After getting her master’s in marriage and family therapy, also from Converse, she headed to New York, landing a job with the International Rescue Committee. One of her jobs was teaching English to immigrant parents and educating them about the American public school system.
“My part was helping those who are newly resettled here not feel so alone and disconnected,” she said. “Just to have a friendly face and someone who cares about you and knows your name makes a big difference when you’re in a new, unfamiliar place.”
Many resettled families have been uprooted more than once. Through lengthy wars in their ancestral homeland, people who identify as one ethnicity may have never lived in that country of origin. As a result, those refugees speak a variety of languages and dialects. Many children know only refugee camps as their ancestral home but are often already fluent in multiple languages.
Patel has learned families from Eritrea have elaborate coffee-making ceremonies for celebrations and other community gatherings. Often unable to communicate through language, she found ways to get through nevertheless – sometimes while just sitting together and pointing to pictures in small family albums or other books.
“It was amazing how we were able to connect without knowing the language,” she said, adding that official interpreters were hired to communicate important information. “I really value that they let me in because many had experienced terrible things. Feeding me or entrusting me with information about their children or seeing me as some sort of expert who could help them – that taught me the value of relationship-building. Once they saw I was safe and knowledgeable, we could then build on that foundation of trust and I could serve them in ways they needed.”
Patel has maintained friendships with families over the years, celebrating when those she knew as young children accomplish that most important thing: high school graduation. Some go to college; others get jobs to help support their families. And their parents have connected with new networks through their work, faith, and neighborhood communities.
Having seen people “othered,” Patel wanted to help newly resettled families in good times and bad.
“I knew I wanted to support people who were living in fear,” Patel says. “No one ever really questioned if I belonged in a space growing up, but there are people who can’t hide certain aspects of themselves, and they shouldn’t have to. I advocate for equity because everyone belongs and there’s no shame in how you came here or who came on your behalf in your family’s history. Even though I didn’t have to endure it myself, I don’t think any child should face the fear of exclusion or harm based on who they are.”
‘A strong, connected community’
Working as a Carolina Family Engagement Center liaison has allowed Patel to magnify her influence. While she misses the close connection she had with families, she appreciates being able to effect change in a macro way.
“Now I can access the schools and help families understand the community,” she said. “I can help advocate or illuminate things for teachers and staff. One way we did this was by providing professional development on Engaging Global Students and Families in South Carolina to educators, school leaders and parent and family engagement specialists across the state through the South Carolina Department of Education Family Engagement Conference. My co-presenters included collaborators from Lutheran Services Carolinas New Americans Program, the Charleston County School District, and Richland County School District One World Languages and ESOL Programs.”
She’s gotten her own dose of illumination. “I’ve learned more about what teachers and principals do to connect with families to support student learning together as a team. Often these dedicated educators are from the same community as their students. It has also reinforced my view that families are incredibly strong, caring, and knowledgeable about their students. Having these community supports are vital when working collaboratively to benefit all learners.”
She recalls one mother, a hairdresser, of a Burton-Pack Elementary child. Unable to attend a school meeting in person, she attended by phone, cutting the hair of her understanding client and contributing to the meeting while she did.
“Even though she couldn’t physically be at the school, she made it her priority to be there virtually,” Patel said. “That is amazing.”