BENNINGTON -- Just three years ago, Carla Lacross had a beautiful home in Jamaica in which she raised her two children. Her husband supported the family working for the government as a high-ranking police officer
Life was good.
That life drastically changed in 2010 as violence broke out in the nation's capital of Kingston between a drug cartel and Jamaica's military and police.
Her husband was involved in multiple shoot-outs on the city streets. In addition to his safety, Lacross said the safety of her family was at risk every day. She had to pull her children out of school, but when violence escalated and there was no place else to turn, the family was forced to start a new life.
"We had our own home back in Jamaica. A lovely house. Family together. We had to flee from Jamaica after that because the government wasn't protecting us," Lacross said.
Lacross left the country first, getting a job in the Bronx caring for elderly. After earning enough money, Lacross was able to buy plane tickets for her family to come to the United States. Coming up with the money to support the family once in America was difficult though.
"(My husband) couldn't get a job because he was undocumented," she said.
Years of hardship
In the two years since, Lacross has stumbled upon additional hardships -- a divorce, the diagnosis of breast cancer, and unsteady living conditions that have included stints living in Chicago, Albany, N.Y., where her children are still staying with a relative, and now Bennington.
At the advice of Janette Johnson, with whom she is now living, Lacross is attending The Tutorial Center (TTC) in Bennington as she works toward her high school diploma. After graduating she hopes to become a home licensed practical nurse.
Johnson, who moved to the area from Jamaica herself 14 years ago, received her high school diploma from TTC in 2003. Like Johnson, Lacross is also taking an English second language (ESL) class taught by Barbara Keyes at TTC as they work toward obtaining their United States citizenship.
Lacross said she never wanted to leave Jamaica. It's clear through the passion in her voice as she talks about her experiences that she misses her homeland. In the winter months, when Vermont temperatures drop below freezing, Lacross said she longs to move back. "I do not like to be cold," she said before describing all of the layers wears even in the summer when others around her may be walking around in T-shirts.
But Lacross has no other option. "We can never go back," she said.
Now in the country two years, Lacross has grown accustomed to the United States and said she calls it home.
The circumstances that brought Johnson to Southern Vermont as a single mother 14 years ago differ from those Lacross faced. Johnson was among 30 Jamaican women who came to Manchester in 1998 through a work program with Equinox Resort.
"Jamaica is a small island and we are overpopulated, and there's not a lot of jobs out there for us to do, so we have to go where we can find a job," Johnson said.
At the time Johnson did not plan to stay in the county, but before long she fell in love and was married in 1999. Although the marriage did not last, Johnson has remained in the region, now living in Bennington.
"I could not see myself going back to Jamaica to live. To visit, yes, but not to live," she said.
Johnson has found happiness, although there was a time shortly after arriving in the country when she wondered if she ever would.
When she left Jamaica, Johnson also left behind her three children -- the youngest who was 3 at the time and the other two who were in their teens.
"It was difficult, but when we talked, I was like, ‘Mama's got to do this. I'm here, I've got to make a life. I've got to work so you guys can be taken care of,'" she said. "It was awful. Really, really awful. I didn't know anybody, and within six months I was divorced and I didn't know anybody really."
Although the situation was difficult, Johnson found the environment and people around her to be helpful. In a state with a 95 percent white population, Johnson had expected some prejudice because of the color of her skin or her accent, but she has experienced very little.
"I have friends who used to tell me that they do get picked on, but maybe (I don't) because I have this friendly face," she said, "To be honest, it never really bothered me. People do ask me that a lot, but I said no, most of my friends are white."
Over time Johnson received help with her immigration status through local resources and she then heard about TTC from another woman taking a class there in 2002. She received her high school diploma the following year and then completed the Bridge to College program through TTC and Community College of Vermont that helps transition people who wish to attend college but are not ready. With the need to earn enough money to bring her youngest son to America, Johnson was unable to continue classes at CCV at the time, as she picked up two full-time jobs as a licensed nurse assistant.
Johnson has since brought her youngest son to live with her, and she is now back attending classes at CCV as she pursues a degree in business administration.
If it weren't for TTC, Johnson said she is unsure how much more difficult the transition to America would have been. In addition to allowing her the opportunity to receive her high school diploma, Johnson has also benefited from the ESL class she continues to attend.
"Jamaica is an English speaking county, but we have a dialect which we call patois. So sometimes we may be speaking English, but we just go a little bit too fast and people seem to think we speak French," Johnson said.
In addition to speaking, Johnson said the class has done wonders to improve her writing, which is often more difficult for people learning the language to pick up.
Like Johnson, Louis Luque also moved to America in pursuit of a job. The Colombian native was a telecommunication salesman for 12 years prior to moving to the U.S., but by the time Luque reached his 40s he was unable to find employment.
In Colombia, Luque earned a college degree in economics and a master's degree in marketing. Even with that background, Luque could not earn a living in his native country. After moving to Texas where his sister lives, Luque came to Bennington to work in the seafood department at Hannaford Supermarket.
"The opportunity for jobs for me, for the old people, is none. The old people for Colombia is 40 years, 45 years. (When you reach that age) you are too old for work," Luque said. "You need to work. You have an opportunity here (in America) to find a job."
Luque spoke Spanish and English in Colombia, but upon coming to the United States he needed to improve his English to understand customers who often speak quickly.
"We speak English in Columbia, but we don't practice too much," he said laughing.
After four years of ESL, Luque still attends classes although there is no longer a significant language barrier between him and others. Now, he said, customers get to know him and want to speak Spanish with him.
In six months, Luque plans to take a U.S. citizenship test. While many of his classmates in the ESL program are more nervous about the exam, Luque expects the test to be "easy" because he learned the history of America while growing up in Columbia.
"We in Colombia, we have a good education ... we know what happened here," he said.
Whether he will stay in the country the rest of his life is up in the air.
"You don't know where your last day is," he said, adding "I enjoy my life here, I enjoy the people here. These are nice people."
The fourth immigrant taking Keyes' ESL course is also from Colombia. Gloria Rubio moved to the U.S. with her daughter more than a decade ago. Like Johnson, Rubio came to the States through the foreign work program at Equinox Resort, where she still cleans rooms.
Two years ago Rubio became a U.S. citizen, which she said was important to her because she has lived in the country for many years. "I live hear. It's my life now," she said with a smile.
Upon coming to the country, Rubio did not speak any English. She has been taking ESL classes for the past eight or nine years, although becoming fluent in a new language has proven difficult. Because her daughter has since graduated from college and moved out of state, Rubio now lives alone and is unable to practice speaking English in conversation on a daily basis. She also works full time, which has made it difficult for her to attend the classes in Bennington with great frequency.
Speaking English regularly, and being around people who are speaking English, is the fastest way to pick up the language, said Keyes, who has taught the class the past 16 years. Over her time, Keyes has helped dozens of children and adults alongside Sharon Cotterell, who volunteers in the classroom.
"We've had students from all over the world," Keyes said. "We've had students from Russia, Africa, China, Korea, South America, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Belarus."
Keyes does not speak the primary language of many of her students, but she said she does not need to because teachers are advised English is the only language that should be spoken in ESL classes.
"We're supposed to only have English in the classroom because what happens is if they're able to rely on the language it's not a good thing," Keyes said.
The class, offered twice a week for two hours at a time, is considered basic and is intended to help foreigners learn what they need to get around.
"We go right to the basics and the survival skills -- what they need to know in order to survive here, how to get places, contact phone numbers, and how to be able to follow telephone conversations," Keyes said.
Students also bring specific things they have encountered and need help with, as Luque did with different meats after he first came to the area and was working in Hannaford's meat department.
The longer people are in the class, the more advanced the curriculum becomes for them. The program is also tailored around what they want to learn.
"Whatever people need. If people want to work on citizenship we work on citizenship, if they want to work on grammar we work on grammar, if they need help on conversation we do that," Cotterell said.
Cotterell, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia for two years in the 1970s, said she enjoys learning about the students and the places they have lived. That enjoyment has kept her regularly volunteering at the program for the past 15 years.
"It's just enjoyable meeting new people, hearing their stories, helping them out where we can," she said.
Keyes said the class is "like a family," as she pointed to pictures of current students and ones from the past decade and a half that cover the walls of the office-like classroom on the top floor of the TTC. Many of the photos she points to are followed by a short story about where they came from, or what they are doing now. If the class is a "family," Keyes is the mother figure, which is why she has stayed teaching the class for so many years.
"I'm hoping that I'm helping these folks have a better life here, after I've heard some of the terrible circumstances they've had in their life. And if I've helped in just a small way, that is my reward," Keyes said.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi