The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - 92

written by BRIAN BONGARD

The Immigrant
Experience in Roanoke
How has immigration affected the fabric of life in the Roanoke Valley?

92

MAY/JUNE 2019

For many immigrants seeking a
community, churches and temples
are a good start. Commonwealth
Catholic Charities has a long list of
services, many of them focused on
children. There are panel discussions,
held at places like The Jefferson
Center and Roanoke College, where
community leaders can be asked
questions and provide information.
language you want, as long as it is in complete
sentences." She relates one particular experience
they recently had:
"I was in the check-out line at the grocery store,
paying for food with my children, and we were
speaking in Spanish to each other. The guy behind
us in line started calling us 'wetbacks' and told us
to 'speak English!' He said 'you don't belong here,
you're not welcome here, go back home.'"
Her young kids understood every word he said.
"What gave me strength in that moment was that
the cashier and the people in line stood up for us,"
she says. "They asked if I wanted them to call the
police." She adds, "You have the very bad people,
but you have the good people who are willing to
stand up for you, too."
Rachel Thompson, whose heritage is Jamaican
TheRoanoker.com

BONE AND SOL PHOTOGRAPHY

W

HAT IS IT LIKE TO be an immigrant or refugee living in the
Roanoke Valley?
Immigrants leave their countries because they feel like
they don't belong there anymore. It may be because of political or religious
persecution, or war and the threat being killed. It could be fear of the horrible
things that gang violence can mean to everyone, but especially the children.
Many refugees say "there are some things worse than death." Or it may be in
hopes of finding a better way to support their family. Their struggle is to find
security, belonging and a better life.
Most of us can relate to the simple challenges of moving to a different
town: making new friends, settling and fitting in. But if you're moving to a
different country, it becomes exponentially more challenging, especially if you
left your home country under duress. There is a different culture and language.
You look different. You will be impacting the lives of people who have lived
there forever, and you may not always be welcomed. Racism will frequently
rear its ugly head.
There are also struggles for the communities where immigrants are trying
to get acclimated. Assimilating new groups of people into the fabric of local
life has social, cultural, political and economic impacts. There are fears that
newcomers will put strains on schools and hospitals, that public safety will be
compromised, that they will take their jobs, cost taxpayers money and divert
resources away from other programs. Those fears are professed often by those
who feel strongly about them and amplified by some of our political leaders
and the media.
How do these struggles play out in the lives of people in the Roanoke
Valley? Is Roanoke a welcoming community? Or is there resentment and
conflict?
The answer is both. There are many citizens and programs who welcome
immigrants with open arms, but there is also fear, intolerance and racism.
"Racism occurs far more often here than many of us would like to admit,"
says Christine Poarch, attorney and advocate for immigrants at Poarch Law.
Rocio Mendez is a paralegal at the same firm. She is from Mexico, grew
up in Salem, married a Mexican and has three young children. Her family
is completely bi-lingual. "The rule in our house is that you can speak any


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The Roanoker - May/June 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of The Roanoker - May/June 2019

The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - Intro
The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - Cover1
The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - Cover2
The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - 3
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The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - Cover3
The Roanoker - May/June 2019 - Cover4
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