Wednesday, December 6, 2023

‘Their resilience is unbelievable’

Sarai Jimenez

   Sarai Jimenez and her family escaped the chaos of Venezuela in 2021, sought refuge in Colombia then, when things got bad there too, fled north, trekking through Central American rainforests, across mountain passes, clinging to ropes at the edge of cliffs, crossing rivers, wading through mud up to their knees.
     They were captured by guerrillas, held hostage, robbed. Then Sarai, now 17, had to wait for months in Mexico before crossing the border, legally as an applicant for asylum, arriving here in July only to confront a prospect that really frightened her: going to a Chicago high school.
     “I thought it was dangerous,” she said, in Spanish. “I’ve seen the movies, and I was scared. I would think, ‘I’m going to get bullied in school.’”
     Instead she found herself in the warm embrace of Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, where some 40 languages are spoken by the most diverse student body in the city, a school with a track record of absorbing every immigrant group arriving in Chicago.
     “Afghans, Syrians, Nepalese ... no one is special at this school because everyone is unique,” said Sarah Quintenz, whose formal title is English language learners leader, but really is just “Ms. Q” or “mom,” the omnipresent source of comfort and rebuke for Sullivan’s 360 or so foreign-born students — about half the school population.
     I ran into Quintenz at Sullivan’s seventh annual Thanksgiving dinner last week and saw a chance to talk about the latest group of newcomers to roil the city.
     “Immigrants plan to come here. They apply for a visa, save money, say goodbye to everybody,” said Quintenz. “Refugees flee. They don’t have any of their stuff. They leave everything behind. They flee to another country, so they take their anger and hostility and sadness to that country.”
     Emotions that complicate the usual teenage angst.
     “They walked. They rode buses,” said Quintenz. “That’s a long time to be thinking, ‘I just left home. I have only the clothes on my back. I hate this. I’m hot. I’m getting eaten by mosquitoes.’ Then they get here, and they’re sleeping in the airport or a police station, or the Leone Park Field House — that’s where most of ours were for the longest time. The kids ask: ‘Is this any better? We’re safer here, but we still don’t have anything. We still don’t have any opportunities. My parents can’t get a job.’”

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  1. Made me cry. I was editor and chief of the Sullivan Sentinal and Co editor of its literary magazine ( with Jan Danoff - whose last name is now Schakowsky) in the 60s when the school was 90 percent Jewish. I had thought the school had fallen on hard times. I'm so glad it is doing such great work today!I'm so proud of my alma mater!!!!

  2. We're a goddamned country of immigrants. Get over it, America! If you don't like it, I got one word that's probably too big for your pea-sized brain: emigrate.

  3. Our country has not figured out how to legitimize millions of immigrants that have arrived over the last 30 years.

    Asylum seekers are her legally but conditionally . Their status is extremely tenuous and they are resented by many from previous waves who preceive them as having advantages.

    Tough situation.

  4. Blows my mind that anyone could look at that picture of those beautiful faces from all over the world--together, here, now--and not understand that this is exactly what has always made this country what it is. It's the best part of us.

  5. I thought Ronald Reagan solved this problem back in the ‘80’s? No wait, he just kicked the can down the road.

  6. Thank you for this piece, Neil. It is a wonderful reminder of one aspect of what makes our country a great one. In spite of it all, there is still good.

  7. Thank you for this. These stories need to be told.

  8. Harvey?? Anyone who has ever lived in the south suburbs can tell you that moving this family to Harvey is an excellent way to convince them to return to their country. I wouldn't wish this move on any one; that poor girl is in for quite a shock.

    1. When I went to J-school, a number of my classes included a couple of females from Harvey. White, working-class kids, who were probably the first in their families to go to college. The Harvey girls seemed to be somewhat overwhelmed by their experiences and their surroundings. But that was then, and this is now...and it's not 1967 anymore.

    2. @Grizz 65. It's definitely not 1967 anymore in Harvey. There's little comparison between 1967 Harvey and present day Harvey. I feel especially bad for the young lady profiled in the article, because she's going from a high where she seems to be happy to a really bad school situation.

    3. I was trying to say what you are saying about Harvey's drastic changes without sounding like Archie Bunker. But maybe that's just not possible.

      Are they going there willingly and voluntarily...or are they just being shipped to Harvey and dumped there by the powers-that be, in order to kick the can down the road?

      As refugees, they obviously have little knowledge of the situation they face in Harvey, and no say-so whatsoever about being moved there. They're just fish...being dumped from the frying pan into the fire.

  9. 🚶🏽‍♀️Trans John/Karen 3/22December 6, 2023 at 9:28 AM

    Watching the fierceness of the protests against ‘them’ in Brighton Park was reminiscent of the ugliness that occurred in Marquette Park during the mid-1960’s.
    Except…this wasn’t a bunch of white people collaborating with the American Nazi Party. We were spared the sight of refugees being pelted with rocks and bottles mainly because there was nobody around to throw them at. Just a frustrated City Council member. Many of the protestors in the recent skirmishes were themselves heavily accented. ‘Parasites, demanding handouts.’ seemed to be a common theme. Not just in Brighton Park, but that only leads to ugly thoughts on my end. Not what our host is aiming for today.

    Today’s column was a welcome look at who our future citizens are, how and why they came here, and the wonderful people who are helping them adjust. Our city has museums and parades commemorating the heritage of Poles, Irish, Italians, Blacks, Mexicans, Swedes, Jews, Puerto Ricans, etc., etc., etc.,. Someday, there will no doubt be a museum celebrating Venezuelan culture and its contributions to our city and country. Realized by Venezuelan-Americans.
    Thanks, Neil.

  10. I think it's worthwhile mentioning that at least some of the economic and political chaos of various Central and South American countries that impels many of their citizens to flee their homes and seek asylum in the United States can be attributed to our actions that directly or indirectly, deliberately or carelessly, negatively affect the political and economic wellbeing of those countries.


  11. Great article. I guess the naysayers responses were to terrible to publish. By the way I am not using your line about hypocrites. One of the best lines I have seen in a while.


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