CAMBRIDGE: CITY OF SANCTUARY?

Growing Immigrant Population Faces Barriers of Language And Culture

For the past decade, Cambridge has been called a haven for immigrants fleeing political persecution or economic hardship in their home countries.

In 1985, because the city welcomed new-comers regardless of their immigration status at the time, it was labeled a "sanctuary city" by the state of Massachusetts.

But immigrants say that no amount of social services can make the transition to a new country easy. They speak of struggles to overcome barriers in language, employment and housing and of difficulties in adjusting to a new culture.

And though immigrants continue to arrive in ever-increasing numbers, cutbacks in state and federal funding have strained the resources of many social service organizations.

Jacqueline Joseph and her husband came to Cambridge three years ago, leaving three children behind in Haiti. With only a low-in-come job to pay off a growing stack of bills, she says she is just getting by.

"In Haiti, you can't sleep well because you're scared." she says. "There are many political problems, and too many tanks in the streets."

"I came here because I think it's better, and I left my family in Haiti," she adds. "But here they don't care about my family."

Joseph, who was a nurse in Haiti, says her inadequate language skills prevent he from getting a better job. She has been taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes but is frustrated by the state of her finances.

"What I don't like is that I don't have too much money," she says. "When you pay the bills, there's no money left for yourself."

The Josephs, who are legal temporary residents, will be eligible for green cards in two years. Only then will they be able to bring their children here.

Though the U.S. offers infinite possibilities to newcomers, it also offers infinite frustrations, and Joseph says she sometimes finds life here very difficult. "Here you can do everything," she says. "You can kill yourself also."

Ehrl LaFontant of the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee says that many Haitians, like the Josephs, came to the U.S. during the last few years because of political upheavals taking place in their nation's capitol.

LaFontant, an organizer for the Eviction Free Zone project, adds that the influx of refugees was also partly the result of immigrants already in Cambridge telling those at home about opportunities here. "Relatives assist refugees with information about whom to contact to settle here," he says.

Cambridge's other leading immigrant populations are Central and South Americans, especially El Salvadoreans and Brazilians, according to a study by the Cambridge Community Foundation. The study, published in 1987, estimates that 20,000 Cambridge residents are now Latino, Portuguese-speaking or Haitian.

A number of private and state-funded organizations in Cambridge provide language and information services for these non-English speaking immigrants. Among the groups doing such work are the Cambridge Organization for Portuguese Americans, Centro Presente, Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences (SCALE) and the Community Learning Center.