ELL Students Share Their Stories with New Teachers

The ELL students and Mrs. Garcia arrive at the Service Center.

At New Teacher Induction in January, English Language Learners (ELLs) and their teacher, Mrs. Garcia, shared their experiences of coming to America, why they made the arduous journey, and what it was like being in a new country and not knowing the language. Their goal was to bring awareness and cultural sensitivity to teachers new to the Fort Smith district. Prior to the event, Mrs. Garcia’s students had written their stories in Spanish and then translated them into English.

Most of the students were anxious to get their turn speaking in front of strangers over with.

“The part that made me the most nervous was when I had to tell my history because oh my gosh there were a lot of people!” Kerly Nieto, 8th, said.

Without even realizing it, the students bonded by sharing their stories.

“My favorite part was listening to the other presentations because I wanted to know more about my friends,” Fernanda Moreno, 8th, said.

The ELL students gained more background knowledge of each other.

“Some stories are very sad, but now I know that I’m not the only one who passed through the desert, and I’m very proud of my friends for making it like I did,” Eliza Santiago, 8th, said. Eliza, who traveled from Mexico, remembered hearing screaming, being terrified of being caught by immigration, and crying for her grandmother.

Each of these students had a purpose for coming here to the Land of Opportunity.

Enrique Bermudez-Cruz, 8th, made the journey from El Salvador to reunite with his mother. Traveling with his older sister who feared him going alone, Enrique made it to the border but was then abandoned by the group’s leader. The siblings walked for three days until being discovered by immigration officers. After spending two weeks in a children’s detention center, Enrique and his sister were allowed to fly to Arkansas rather than being sent back to El Salvador.

“The moment I saw my mom, I was very happy because it had been 13 years since I had last seen her,” Enrique said. “I couldn’t even remember how she looked.”

Enrique hopes to someday return to El Salvador to see the grandmother who raised him since he was a year old.

Mariely “Bessie” Nieto-Silva, 8th, came from Honduras with two of her brothers to reunite with her father, even though it meant leaving her mother and sister behind. Mariely’s journey involved multiple police checkpoints, lack of food and sleep, and swimming across the Usumacinta River between Guatemala and Mexico. Robbed and abandoned by their guide at the Mexico-U.S. border, Mariely and her brothers were caught by the Mexican police.

“The officers took us under custody for questioning,” Mariely said. “We were made fun of and bullied, told they would throw us in the Rio Grande River to drown, and reminded of how crazy we were for even attempting to cross.”

Once in the hands of U.S. immigration, the siblings spent the night in a cold cell without food or blankets until being transferred to a Texas detention center. After fifteen days of not being allowed to see each other, the siblings reunited with their father and came to live in Fort Smith.

“Being here has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life,” Mariely said. “I went through a lot to achieve my dream of being with my father. I miss my mother and sister very much and hope and pray to one day see them again. As for now, I hope to learn English.”

Once here, students like Maria Sanchez, 9th, had to struggle to fit in.

“When I arrived about two years ago from Mexico, I felt like I was worth less than other people because I did not know what to do or say,” Maria said. “I had lots of fear to say the wrong things and be laughed at. I wanted to make friends; yet, I could not communicate. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Garcia helped me and taught me to put all of my effort into learning English.”

Most of these teenagers crossed for a better future, such as Fernanda, who came here from Mexico to learn a second language and have a better education.

“We ourselves are the architects of our map, and our map is life — the map that we have designed,” Fernanda said. “Currently, with the little English I have learned, I help people like me who know what it’s like coming to a new place and not knowing how to speak English.”

No one said life was easy, and these teenagers know it.

“I had to start from scratch but eventually began to see things get easier with the help of Mrs. Martinez in 7th grade,” Ariana Velazquez, 8th, said. “I have been tempted to give up many times but remembering a phrase my mother said to me has helped me to retain my goal:’If things worthwhile were easy, then they wouldn’t be worthwhile.’ For that and far more reasons today, I am stronger than yesterday.”

With such strength, these English Language Learners take care of each other as a family. They have gone through the struggle of being left out for not knowing a language and do not want anyone else to go through what they did, which is why some want to become ELL teachers.

“Becoming a teacher is my goal and dream in life,” Mariely said. “I know that with the help of my teachers and my effort I will be able to achieve this dream.”

Although the ELL students have learned many things since arriving, it is always good to hear words from the wise, especially those who share similar experiences.

“I’d like to tell all the students that we all have challenges, but never give up on trying to conquer your dreams because it is possible, and I’m an example of that,” Mrs.Garcia said.