This year, CARECEN is celebrating its 30th Anniversary and I thought I would get a little personal and tell you about how I got involved in this great organization.
I had a friend from college, Jorge Fiedler, who was arrested by the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza during in 1979. I did not know much about Central America at the time, but I started to learn when he was picked up. What I found out was that El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala had all been ruled for decades by military governments installed by or backed by the United States. Their governments suppressed dissent with murder and torture.
In 1979, my dad had a stroke and I had to drop out of college to return to Westbury to take care of him. I was shocked to find that the village was experiencing an influx of refugees from El Salvador. My mom had died when I was in high school and my aunt, a Catholic nun, had stepped up to help raise me. Being raised by a nun probably was a major reason why I was drawn to helping people in my own community who had been forced to flee political and religious persecution. I got involved with a network of young activists, including my future boss Ken Lederer, who were all trying to inform Long Islanders about the human rights disasters in those countries which were being paid for by U.S.-taxpayer dollars.
Making speeches and showing films was all right, but I along with several others wanted to reach out to the refugees and provide them with more concrete help. I started to volunteer each week at the Methodist Church in Hempstead, where English as a Second Language (ESL) was being offered to students young and old from Central America.
At the time, I worked as an assembly line worker and later a forklift driver at Nankee Paint Factory in Farmingdale, where I was a member of the Teamster Union. When I started teaching my first English class, I was surprised by how similar my students were to me. Their lives were disrupted by tragedy and were doing things that had not been in their life plan. Unlike me, they were thousands of miles from home in a place where they were despised and hunted.
I knew that a law allowing anyone fleeing persecution in their homelands to apply for asylum had been passed by Congress and signed by President Carter in 1980, the year before I started teaching. I talked to the students about their right to apply for political asylum.
When I talked to my immigrant students about asylum, they just laughed. They said that I was naive, and that asylum was not given to people like them. I told them that they were exactly the kind of people asylum was designed for. I found out that they were not, at least in the eyes of the Reagan Administration.