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Taking Refuge in Cambridge

Jennifer Gordon '87

By Jennifer L. Mnookin

At Centro Presente, a support agency for Boston-area Central American refugees, an E1 Salvadoran explains his predicament to Jennifer Gordon '87. He tells her he came to America four years ago and has just received a phone call informing him that his wife and two young children were arrested while trying to cross the border between Mexico and Texas.

He tells her that he lives in a three-room house with 13 other people, five of whom are small children. One of the children has lead poisoning. The landlord is trying to evict the group, but the refugee doesn't have anywhere to move. He speaks no English, and is afraid that he's going to be fired.

He has no money, no idea how to get his wife and children--one of whom is ill--out of detention in Texas, and no idea how to fit them into his overcrowded house if he does get his family out of detention and into Boston. And, while the man has been in America for four years without getting caught, he is here illegally, as an undocumented alien.

For Gordon to meet a refugee like this man is not unusual. She says, "People often come into Centro Presente in really desperate situations."

In a situation like this one, Gordon, as a paralegal, would help the man to get his wife and children out of detention. She might also see if the social services or educational components of Centro Presente might help him.

Gordon and the other paralegals, several of them Harvard students and all of them fluent in Spanish, primarily help Central American refugees, who have been arrested for being undocumented, deal with the American legal process.

"They have no awareness of what our legal system is like. They've only a known a corrupt legal system, and initially, they have no reason to trust me at all," Gordon says. Slowly, Gordon builds their trust, explains to them their options, and if they so choose, helps them apply for political asylum in the United States.

But the odds of Central American aliens receiving asylum are extremely slim--Gordon says the government rejects 98 percent of the Guatemalans and 97 percent of the E1 Salvadorans. More than half of those applicants from the Soviet Union, Poland, and Libya are accepted, says Jean Butterfield, legal coordinator for Centro Presente.

Not one of Centro Presente's clients has ever been deported. "So long as a refugee has a political asylum case in progress, they can't deport him. And when we lose, then we can appeal the case, and so long as the appeal is still in process, they have to let him stay," Gordon says. "We appeal all the cases. The appeals process is our only weapon--we are able to use the slow judicial process to buy time."

Gordon spends about 15 hours per week at Centro Presente, and says she is currently helping eight or nine clients who are fighting to gain political asylum.

"It's strange to have a real-life job. This is really these peoples' lives. If you don't get that application in, it might really affect their lives, they might even be deported," the Dunster House resident says. "I have a constant horror, a constant fear that if I do something wrong it could really affect them."

When Gordon started working for Centro Presente in June, 1985, there were almost no Harvard students involved in the group. Now, more than half a dozen students serve as paralegals at the organization, Butterfield says.

"It's because of Jennifer that a lot of Harvard students work here now. She's advertised our legal program a lot, and very successfully," says Sister Rose Mary Cummins, co-founder of Centro Presente.

"Jennifer is really one of the mainstays of the program," Butterfield says. "She's active in all levels--she helps to train paralegals, she's on the search committee which is choosing a new lawyer--she's really involved in all aspects."

Gordon has combined her extracurricular interests explicitly with her academic ones. A special concentrator in Latin American Studies, she is particularly interested in the problems of refugees.

Last summer, the native of Storrs, Connecticut went to Mexico to do research for her senior thesis on refugees from the Spanish Civil War who took asylum in the Mexican Embassies. Although international law in the 1930s dictated that Mexico--which was antifascist and leftist--had to accept all political refugees, these Spanish refugees were mostly conservative and fascist sympathizers.

"Jennifer is really a first-rate student," says Instructor in Social Studies Marta Gil, Gordon's thesis adviser. "She's very unassuming. She could really have a brilliant future in academia, but I have a feeling that her deep interest in social issues will prevail."

Thoroughly Committed

"The most impressive thing about Jennifer is her commitment to Centro Presente. It seem to me to be an incredibly difficult job, one that requires her to get involved politically and psychologically. She's thoroughly committed to it, and in a lot of ways, she takes the job home with her," says Gordon's roommate Betty Achinstein '87.

Gordon's involvement with refugee issues and her compassion for their problems manifests itself in other spheres of her life. A poem she wrote, Manuela in Boston, which won first place last year in the Jane Grey Untermeyer poetry contest, expresses the spirit of the refugee experience.

In the half-light

of this country,

I hold my foreign belly in my hands

At night I dream my language,

the smell of corn carried

on smoke, the babies crying after me,

my mother's song. When I open

the door to watch them, their

backs are turned.

Walking front-heavy and afraid, I move from one world to the other.

My skin when I roll from bed

is puckered with cold. My ears,

tuned to silence, widen to the drip

of the radiator, the t.v. downstairs. All day I sing to myself,

aloud on the street in my own voice.

Under harsh lights

in this country my child

will push from me, escape

a second time across the border.

Still one, I wrap my belly

in words. Inside I feel

her mouth already moving, speaking

in a language I will never understand.

But Gordon understands many languages. Fluent in Spanish and proficient in French, she has also studied Russian, Gaelic, Quechua (the second language of Peru), and she is currently learning Portuguese.

In addition to using her Spanish for her work at Centro Presente, Gordon has used her knowledge of languages to do legal and medical translating for Linguistics Systems International. She also used to volunteer as a Spanish translator at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"I would walk around the hospital with a beeper, and when they'd get a patient who spoke only Spanish, they'd beep me, and I'd go and translate," Gordon says. "I learned how to say things like bowel movement and catheter in Spanish."

Gordon says her involvement in activities away from Harvard has in large part been spurred by a desire to befriend people of different generations and from different backgrounds. And her interest in social issues goes far beyond refugees' concerns. She is concerned with women's rights, gay rights, and civil rights in general.

"I met Jennifer when she was a freshman. She was interested in knowing what Radcliffe was about, and mostly, she was looking for a community of people both older than herself and younger. She was looking beyond her own age group," says Radcliffe Dean of Students Philippa Bovet. "I found it fascinating that as a freshman she took the time to go to the Cambridge Public Library and spend time with children there from time to time."

"I really like having friends in Cambridge, who have nothing to do with Harvard," says Gordon. "It's so important to me to have friends that are older and friends that are younger."

Gordon says that now, especially when she walks through Central Square, she often runs into her clients from Centro Presente and meets their families. "My life is divided between my Central American friends and that whole community on the one hand, and the Harvard community on the other."

Her Harvard friends say she provides as much emotional strength and support to them as she does for her Centro Presente ones. "She's a social worker for many people. Friends really come to her with their problems a lot," says Achinstein.

"Whenever I'm completely at the end of my rope, I go to Jennifer, and I always feel better when I leave," adds Gena White '87, who has known Gordon since freshman year.

Gordon says she hopes to continue to combine her interest in people with her interest in social issues after graduation by working in a victim/witness program, a program which helps people who have been victims or witnesses of crimes like rape or murder prepare to testify. Eventually, she is considering going to law school.

A friend evokes an image that captures Gordon's energy: "Jennifer was great at dealing with the subway in Mexico this summer. The Mexico City subways are tremendously overcrowded, but tiny as she is, she was able to squeeze through and always get out first."

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