| National Catholic
The Independent Newsweekly
| Issue Date: March
Program named for Maryknolls marks 10 years educating immigrant women
By RETTA BLANEY
The one overwhelming impression from a visit to the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center is that it is a peaceful place. A reverent quietness permeates, despite the challenging and often painful lives of the poor, mainly immigrant women of Brooklyns Bushwick neighborhood who come here. The words of Maya Angelou displayed on one wall capture the feeling: Nothing can dim the light which shines from within you. That sense of empowerment seems to fuel the quiet attentiveness of the women studying as they seek skills to understand and be understood in their new country.
Its so easy to work here, said Sr. Mary Burns, a sister of Charity of Halifax who is founder and director of the center, which is named for two American Maryknoll sisters who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Everyones here to learn.
Whether their arrival in this country has been as dramatic as slipping undetected across a border or as routine as boarding a plane, the women at the center have come just as thousands of immigrants before them, looking for financial and sometimes political security, especially for their children.
They all have their own stories of how they got here, but they all want education for their children, Burns said. Thats the key, I think. Learning English was the primary interest of about a half-dozen women who, either in broken English or through an interpreter, talked one recent morning of wanting to help with homework, deal with school matters or just be a better educated parent.
You can live in Bushwick and never speak English, Burns said.
Rosa is a good example of this. (Last names are withheld because many of the women are undocumented.) Although she arrived in this country 13 years ago from El Salvador, she speaks little English. She enrolled at the center four months ago because she hears her children, aged 7, 12 and 15, speaking English to their friends on the phone and wants to know what they are saying. When she asks them, they wont tell her. Before coming to the center she spent her time at home eating and sleeping too much. Now she says she has made friends and feels accepted.
The majority of the women who come here are between 20 and 40, but their educational backgrounds range from no chance to go to school in their own country to college graduate, Burns said. All are asked to pay $10 a month, for which they may take as many classes as they like.
If you pay for your education, you have a right to complain, she said. Its an ownership, too.
Burns conceived the idea for a womens center while between jobs and on retreat on Long Island in 1989. It took several years for the vision to become a reality, but on Sept. 7, 1993, the center opened in a former elementary school, space rented to it by St. Barbara Parish. The need is great in Bushwick, an area formerly known as burnt-out Bushwick because of the devastation it suffered in the rioting following the 1977 blackout.
Mexicans are the dominant immigrant group, followed by those from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. Tiny shops line the commercial streets, offering nail and hair care, carryout ethnic foods and the wares of small grocery stores. A sprawling housing project, Hope Gardens, has replaced homes destroyed in the riots. The school district was rated one of the worst in the city last year; only 20 percent of eighth graders passed their standardized reading tests.
In its first decade, the center has helped at least 1,200 neighborhood women develop language and computer skills, acquire GEDs and participate in leadership training. On an average day, about 90 attend classes while many of their children are helped in Head Start programs on the floors below. And while the Head Start efforts are not part of the centers work -- the building is home to many social service agencies -- childrens needs are also part of the centers outreach. Burns and the teachers talk to the women about their children and if they learn of any difficulties at a school, they help organize a group of women and prepare them to talk to the principal or other school officials.
The teachers know whats going on, Burns said. Theyll let us know if somethings happened.
This kind of advocacy helped one child with attention deficit disorder get transferred to a smaller school where he is thriving.
The sacrifices these women are making to be here are for their family, Burns said. We want to make sure its worth it. Such support is the centers aim. Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Thats what we try to work on here.
The centers first decade of service is being honored in March by a choral drama written by Elizabeth Swados, a composer whose work has appeared on and off Broadway and around the country (see accompanying story). It will be a fundraiser for the center that Burns, in my dreams, hopes will raise $50,000 to increase teacher salaries, offer more classes and just not to have to worry about money all the time. The centers annual budget is about $380,000, but sometimes its not enough. Its always a concern.
As she has been from the start, Burns is compelled by her horror at the murders of Clarke, Ford and two other American missionaries in El Salvador in 1980 and her desire to honor their memories. Although she never knew any of the women, she named the center for Clarke and Ford because they were from Queens and Brooklyn.
When I get to heaven, one of the first things Im going to ask them is Why me? Im a Sister of Charity and they were Maryknolls. I got stuck. Its a good stuck, but Im stuck. Its like a holy obligation for me.
Retta Blaneys latest book is Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.
National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 2004
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