Located on the second floor of the Baptist Church in Pittsfield (88 South Street; tel: 413-445-4881) the Berkshire Immigrant Center (BIC) is a light, bright, color-and hope-filled place. whose essence, for me, is caught on its walls, like emblems.
* A World Map, entitled “Where Do We Come From,” decorated with colored pins stuck in homelands all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America;
*A photograph of the Statue of Liberty;
* A framed certificate of outstanding performance, dedication and commitment issued to BIC by the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).
* A multi-colored African Welcome Poster next to four beloved Norman Rockwell prints – all hung with Tibetan prayer flags;
*A plaque given to the Center by the Berkshire Immigrant Community that reads:
In Recognition Of The Wonderful People, Like Angels On The Path, Who Are Fighting With Love For Our Wellbeing.
Four people – only one of whom is full-time, staff BIC. Its wonderful Director has to spend endless time writing grants to keep BIC alive. And once you start grasping everything BIC you know it’s a place where everyone works over time – and loves what they’re doing.
It’s simple to summarize BIC’s services: orientation to community resources and referrals, immigration counseling and support, citizenship assistance, advocacy, community education and outreach. (Interview with Hilary Greene, Berkshire Eagle, March 27). But this does not begin to capture the extraordinary role that BIC plays for all kinds of people, with all kinds of needs.
Some things are more straightforward than others – like finding literacy programs (there’s one at the Lee Library, for example) tutoring, preparation for citizenship exams, and help understanding and completing very complicated federal applications for documentation and resident status. Jennifer Smith, BIC’s Educational Coordinator, sometimes sees as many as ten or twelve students in her ten-hour a week job. It’s varied work – because students arrive with different levels of literacy. Volunteer tutors help a great deal.
Other requests are more complicated – when, for example, immigrants need legal or social advocacy for themselves, their spouses, their children, their parents, and when they need safety and protection from violence in their home lands and right here, in the US.
BIC’s collection of nineteen narratives, drawn over the past few years, from fourteen homelands (Brazil, Central Asia (a country from the former Soviet Republic), Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, India, Liberia, Republic of Congo, Peru, Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka) illustrates the variety of challenges people bring with them.
Twenty-four years old, J was a youth organizer and community worker in El Salvador before he decided to pursue his education, became targeted by kidnappers working for a new government, and nearly died escaping. N, a child in Liberia in the 90’s arrived in the states with her young daughter, borne in a refugee camp in Guinea. D came into the US on a Temporary Exchange Visa, working for a year before facing the punitive prospect of returning home, to a former Soviet Republic Central Asia as a gay man who would never stay be able to live in his homeland and stay alive. B, a promising girl who would have been first in her family to graduate from college, became the target of Congolese guerilla fighters and was gang-raped – while her uncle was forced to watch.
Don’t misunderstand. None of these people come to BIC as victims. All are determined to build safe, free lives here, be good citizens, and find productive ways to express their deep gratitude to this country. But with such histories, it’s easy to grasp how much difference kindness, understanding, and supports can make. And many also thinks of our ancestors – who, may also have emigrated bravely from one place to another, to give their children better futures. We are all neighbors, all kin. The Berkshire Immigrant Center makes all our families stronger.