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I Learn America at the Capitol Theatre

On Thursday, December 4th, we journeyed to the Quail Hollow Resort in Painesville to attend "Coffee Contacts" which was open to all members of the Mentor and Painesville Chambers of Commerce. Except for a holiday mixer on December 18th, this will be the last Painesville/Mentor chamber gathering for 2014 so the organizers went all out to make this one extra special. For instance, the minute we walked in we were handed a glass of orange juice which is a perfect prescription for those worried about catching a cold on a chilly morning toward the end of fall. After we finished the orange juice, there were several different quiches to choose from including a vegetarian one that we could eat. There were all sorts of door prizes and photo ops with Santa Claus.

We knew almost all of the approximately 75 people there so we renewed old acquaintances over breakfast and even got a possible client; a person from Canada who has lived in the United States for years and is now considering becoming a citizen.

Plus, let us confess, we even allowed a photo to be taken of ourselves sitting on Santa's lap! It should be available in a few days but we're not sure we want people to see it. We will have to think about this one for a while.

Our other event for the day was a screening of a documentary titled "I Learn America" about the the process of becoming familiar with the American way of life as experienced by 5 young immigrants attending the International High School at Layfayette in New York City.

The screening was at the Capitol Theatre at 65th Street and Detroit Avenue and it was organized by Facing History and Ourselves and the Allstate Foundation. We had heard of both organizations but were not very familiar with them. Fortunately, however, the program notes gave very good summations. It is the mission of Facing History and Ourselves "to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry." We read that the Allstate Foundation "partners with non-profit organizations on community initiatives that promote 'safe and vital communities,' 'tolerance, inclusion and diversity' and 'economic empowerment.'"

Students were bused in from Hawken School in Cleveland and Lakewood High School so the theater was quite full. We saw several people that we knew there like Mr. Todd Lloyd who we saw at an event just the other day. Mr. Lloyd is a board member of Facing History and Ourselves so he explained to us that one of the things that the organization does is to "provide resources to high school and middle school teachers to show that people make choices and choices make uses historical events to show that they just didn't happen but people make choices to make them happen."

Speaking during the course of the program were Mr. Thomas F. Clarkson, Field Vice President of Allstate Insurance Company and Mr. Mark Swaim-Fox, Director of the Cleveland Office of Facing History and Ourselves. A very moving introduction to the film was given by Mr. Erlind Allkushi, a Lakewood High Schooler who had immigrated to the United States from Albania two years ago. Mr. Allkushi said that "we came to fulfill our dreams" even though it meant leaving a lot behind and "starting at zero." He qualified the latter point, though, when he said that if one has friends and a support group "you move from zero to 10" very soon. He urged people in the same situation as he was not to try to "assimilate" but hang on to your culture and traditions because they are part of who you are.

The length of the film that we watched was a very brisk 50 minutes (we were told there is a 90 minute version) which was just the right length to hold the attention of the audience and leave time for a Q and A. What made the film so good is that the everyone could really connect with the young people whose stories the film told.

After it was over, there was a Q and A with Mr. Jean-Michel Dissard, the filmmaker, and two of the young people from the film who were Mr. Brandon Garcia and Ms. Sandra Staniszewska who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala and Poland respectively. Among the things that came out in the Q and A were:

***Brandon and Sandra were both undocumented immigrants who have been helped by DACA. Mr. Dissard said that there is currently a "big debate" going on over immigration and hopefully the audience will want to involve themselves with it. He wished that immigration laws would "catch up to reality" because we are an immigrant nation. What's more, he believed that the immigrant children "are here to stay, they are the future, and they will determine our future for years to come."

***Sandra said that if she had remained in Poland she might have eventually gotten into trouble because the people she spent time with were not very good influences. America gave her bright chances and opportunities. Brandon said that he made the difficult journey from Guatemala to the United States to re-connect with his mother who he hadn't seen for 10 years but he was glad that he was here now.

***Mr. Dissard also immigrated to the United from France when he was 16 years old and initially settled in Phoenix, Arizona with his family. He compared the process of moving from one country to another country like going from "childhood to adulthood." He acknowledged that it is a very lonely process when one first arrives so he advises people to seek out others who are going through the same thing.

***Brandon said that to him, America means "home and a better future" and that what he had to go through to get here and remain in school after he arrived (the film depicted him as a mediocre student) made him stronger. Sandra said that for her America meant "acceptance, opportunities, and life" and after you have those three words down, you are on the right path.

***Mr. Dissard said that if there was one thing he would do differently regarding the film it would be not to have eaten so much while he was making it. The situation was that whenever he went to the homes of the students to film them, the families would always prepare a lot of food for him to eat.

***Both Brandon and Sarah said that they would return to Guatemala and Poland to visit family and friends but, due to their immigration status, if they left the United States they may not be able to get back in.

Afterwards, Brandon and Sandra were surrounded by high school students who wanted to compliment them on their accomplishments and possibly make friends with them which was something that both of them seemed willing to do. We gave them our contact information and told them to contact Margaret W. Wong and Associates if they wanted assistance on their immigration status.

Mr. Swaim-Fox said that this event was a "community conversation" and in 10 years Facing History and Ourselves had conducted 19 of them. We were glad that on the back of the program, Margaret W. Wong and Associates was listed as one of the 12 organizations who were part of the community conversation planning committee and community partners.

We spoke to Ms. Beth Noren, a teacher of history at Westlake High School, who told us that the contribution of Facing History and Ourselves makes the curriculum "come alive" for her students.

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