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A Facilitator of Assimilation

The words “Gettysburg Address” were written on the board.

“What was the big thing going on when Lincoln was president?” the man at the front of the room said.

A small portion of the class filled with diverse middle-aged immigrants responded: “the civil war.”

“What was it about? Who wasn’t free?”


The man wrote on the board “Slaves = black people.” That is simple enough.

Three years ago, James McDonough was working in the corporate world and had been for 28 years. He needed and wanted to do something different.

So, in 2009, he came to a career services in a Goodwill store run by Catholic Charities Atlanta. There, he began teaching immigrants how to speak, read, and understand English.

After six months of volunteering, he left the world he was used to and entered the world he wanted to be in.

“They have real basic needs,” McDonough said. “They are just trying to get ahead in life. I enjoy talking to them about what they need to do and how important it is to learn English to integrate and assimilate.”

After three years, he is now a senior lead instructor.

Despite his enthusiasm for his work, there are obstacles. Most prominently, the center suffers from inadequate funding and a lack of motivation from the students.

McDonough sees many students join the class for five months and then give up and go back to speaking Spanish. That frustrates him. He has a very clear view of what an immigrant needs to thrive in this country.

This class is in that view. It is not just about learning English but it provides a whole new dimension to their assimilation process.

“They see other people in the class either assimilating more quickly or more slowly,” he said. “They see people they want to emulate.” For example, he puts it, a recent immigrant can see that they don’t need to be stuck in a lousy, minimum wage job.

He also sees a lot of friendships sprout out from the class, especially between the working guys and the stay-at-home mothers.

On top of that, the simple interactions with other people brings them out of their “little communities.”

Despite the perks of being a student in his class, many people’s personal lives hinder their ability to stick with the class. About a month ago, a woman’s husband was deported. In order to take care of her child, the woman couldn’t keep coming to class.

“All of this is dependent on what is going on in their life,” McDonough said. “And it’s secondary to it.”

Getting jobs, losing jobs, getting deported, moving around. This real world is not a school with sheltered kids.

A while back, one of the students was buying an instructor a cake for his birthday. Driving to class, a Cobb County police officer caught him without papers. Another student in the class ended up bailing him out of jail.

The organization had to shut down their Cobb County location because students were simply too afraid to come out at night. Even at this location, McDonough has seen a sharp decline in participation since new Georgia law started kicking in.

On the other hand, McDonough had a student who continued to come to class despite troubles at home (he speculates that there were tensions with her husband) because this class was an escape for her.

“They feel safe here,” he said. “They know nothing bad is going to happen, at least for these two hours.”

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