Hundreds attend the Queens Library event showcasing immigrant services. Photo by Trone Dowd.
BY TRONE DOWD
After a week of uncertainty for the borough’s immigrant community, the Queens Library held an event reassuring them that they will provide help to those who are concerned about being sent back to their respective countries.
Queens Library CEO Dennis Walcott, alongside a number of local immigration advocacy organizations, spent an hour reaffirming the library’s role in offering crucial services to immigrants and refugees that get them assimilated to their new home.
Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning residents of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
“I want you to take a look around the room,” Walcott said. “We represent Queens, New York City and the United States. We represent the world. That’s who we’re here for. The people and the diversity of this great borough and this great country. The people who walk through that door everyday come into our library for information, for sanctuary, for peace of mind, for books and for information on a regular basis to make their lives better. We’re not here for the politics, we’re here for the people.”
Several Queens immigrants were at the press event to share their story of how the library has helped them and how it can help others in need during this uncertain time.
Nagat Almatare, an immigrant from Yemen who took classes at the Queens Library when she arrived here in January 2010, was the first to share her story.
“I came to the U.S. as an immigrant, seeking help and advice,” Almatare said. “As a female Yemeni Muslim, I wasn’t allowed to succeed, have an education and to be where I am today.”
She said that the Queens Library was able to bridge the gap between where she was when she arrived in America and where she is today, thanks to its “wonderful staff, materials” and “items.” She was able to attend ESL classes to learn English and earned a high school diploma, all through the library. She now works at the Langston Hughes Community Library in Corona.
Jagadeesh Shetty, an immigrant from India who takes English classes at the Queens Library Jackson Heights branch, said that he came to the country in 2006. He said that due to classes provided through the library system, his English has been improving exponentially.
Jessica Santos, an immigrant from El Salvador, said that, like Shetty, she has benefitted significantly thanks to the help provided by the library.
Mashyat Tomory, an immigrant from Bangladesh who also takes English classes at the Queens Library, said that Library Central in Jamaica was the very first institution she walked into upon arriving in August 2016.
“I was mesmerized,” she said. “When I came in here, I didn’t know who to go to for a [driver’s] license, how to find a job or where to sign up for a class. I got that all here. In Bangladesh, we have a saying: a book is your best friend. If one book is a friend, I can’t imagine what this library has been to me.”
She told the PRESS of Southeast Queens that during the process of coming into the country, her family back home wondered why she wanted to come to America, considering the contentious rise of Trump. She insisted to press on, and believes that her faith in America has paid off thanks to the opportunities provided. She hopes that those kind of opportunities will not be taken from her or other immigrants moving forward.
Ivy Van, an outspoken immigrant from China, spoke glowingly of the opportunities she has had since coming to New York in 2015, all thanks to the connections made through the library.
“When I first came to America, I was paying to learn English,” Van said. “But when I found the Queens Library Adult Learning Center in Flushing, I was very happy to find the free English conversation classes.”
Computer access, a professional staff and an extensive library of books in numerous languages were all on Van’s list of reasons why the Queens Library was beneficial to her and her mother, whom was also learning English. Van said she has aspirations of someday owning a cafe in New York that would aptly be named the “Freedom Cafe.”
Because of what she has learned through the Queens Library, she said that she already has a license, worked on marketing and a complete business plan for her business.
Several organizations spoke about their work and how city immigrants can benefit from reaching out. These included the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, “We Are New York,” Franck Joseph of Queens Director of the NYC Commission on Human Rights and Ruthie Epstein, Deputy Director of Advocacy for the New York Civil Liberties Union, an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Walcott said that he wants to make sure that one of Queens’ most representative qualities, its diversity, is not undermined as the country moves forward.
“We don’t want people to go underground,” he said. “We don’t want people to be afraid. We want people to know their rights, what they’re entitled to and to get the services they deserve. That is why we’re here today. To reinforce the message that you, you all the people that are here and all the people who are not here are welcome.”