A long line of older people with shopping carts lined the rain-slicked sidewalk on Henry Street in the Lower East Side this week.
One by one, they entered an old brick building, trudged down a short flight of creaky stairs, and picked up their weekly lifeline from a food pantry. Next door, in a church-basement English class, a class of Asian women sang “God Bless America,” before the teacher peppered them with questions.
“How many children do you have?” the teacher asked, reading off a handwritten list.
“Two. And they went to college,” said a student.
“What do you do to relax?”
“Sleep,” said another woman, with a broad smile.
“Why did you come to this country?” asked the teacher.
Such are the celebrations of independence, small and large, that take place at Cabrini Immigrant Services, a social-service agency that has helped newcomers find their way since 1999. It was an effort by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Roman Catholic order founded by St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, to get closer to the order’s roots helping the immigrant poor – as it first did when Pope Leo XIII sent them to New York in 1890 to work with struggling Italians.
Now the agency must confront its own independence. Having operated as a department of the Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation – a religious-run nursing home that covered about half of its $240,000 annual budget – it must now find a way to stand on its own. After failing to secure new space or an extended lease, the nursing home is closing on June 30. The immigrant agency has enough to scrape by until the end of the year.
Or so it hopes.
“If we don’t have more funding, we’ll have to close our doors, too,” said Sister Kelly Carpenter, the executive director, who is also a lawyer. “We provide so much with so little, from legal services to social services. There seem to be other providers, but we’re all overburdened. If we’re not here, that means that many more people will be on waiting lists for other organizations, hoping they’ll get what they need.”
Hope is a strong thing. It is evident in the faces of the people who fill the center each day. They might come for help in obtaining residency or English classes, but the staff soon figures out what else they might need — from help with housing or navigating city agencies, to helping their children finish high school and apply to college.
Martha Melendez first came to the agency in 2002 to learn English. Over the years, she has returned for help with various other needs, most recently to obtain her citizenship after having lived as a resident since coming from Mexico 22 years ago. Right now, a social worker is helping her straighten out a dispute over a health care proxy that has prevented her from having a say on how her terminally ill husband is being treated.
“They have never said no to me,” she said of the [CIS] staff. “They always help me.”
That’s because some of them know too well the road she has walked. Javier Ramirez Baron, a social worker who runs the family program, came to New York in 2000 as an immigrant from Cali, Colombia. Though he had studied industrial engineering, he changed his career goals after meeting some social workers who helped him. He arrived at Cabrini as an intern in 2005, and started full time after he obtained his master’s degree in social work from Hunter College.
“I’m an immigrant, and I want to help immigrants,” he said. “It helps me to give back.”
The tenor of the national debate on immigration has made it harder, way before the current financing crisis. But he has met enough people willing to help along the way, that it keeps him going, even amid uncertainty.
“There are still a lot of people in America who believe we can find each other as human beings and put aside our differences,” he said. “To help each other find a better, dignified way to have housing, health and education. Those are the things we need to talk about.”
On Friday, Mr. Ramirez will take a step many of his clients hope to follow when he is sworn in as an American citizen. Some of them helped him along the way – like during a bus trip to an immigrant rights rally in Washington, where they peppered him with questions for his citizenship exam.
A half-eaten flag-shaped cake lay on the table in front of him, the remnants of a small, anticipatory celebration. The fact is, the small staff was too busy to mount something more elaborate. But that’s O.K. He understands.
“You know, when I first heard about the Arizona law, I knew it discriminated against immigrants and I was enraged,” he said. “But I know that is not this country. This country gives great opportunity. You can change your reality.”
To read the account on line: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/a-center-for-those-seeking-help-is-now-struggling/
~ this article, written by David Gonzalez, first appeared in the New York Times on Saturday, May 5.