Lois M. Collins: Immigrants, refugees can choose which aspects of culture to assimilate

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

"Communities that have been here two or three or four generations have a place to go to teach their children about their heritage," says Sanders, who sees many of them in the Windy City. It's especially popular among European communities.

The Polish museum hosts a Scout troop. The German cultural center hosts tons of classes for kids and language and culture classes for adults. The new Hellenic museum teaches all things Greek.

By choice or by force

Assimilation is different as well, depending on how one came to be here. Heritage is a tougher issue for refugees, Sanders says, than for immigrants. Immigrants chose to be here and may be more willing to move forward and let go of the past. Refugees were catapulted here, more often not of their own doing, and may cling more to their native ways.

Generations vary, too. When a family is here by choice, it can be scary to see children grow up with a different identity than their parents had. But it may devastate refugees, who didn't choose, notes Sanders.

The Cambodian community in Chicago, for instance, addresses openly the tension between generations and what they want for themselves.

Language is an area where great diversity plays out, although it's essential to assimilation. One mama pushes her kids to learn English and not speak the native tongue. Another forbids English at home, to preserve that native tongue.

When Tatjana Micic, a Bosnian refugee, talks about what's important to her family, language sits at the heart of it. Grammar is important. But her daughters, twins Alejsandra and Ivana, now 22, were not allowed to speak English at home. That is how they maintained fluency in their native tongue. They were 7 when the family came to America, starting second grade here.

One's grasp of English on arrival is key to how quickly one fits in, Micic says. Sudanese refugees already tend to know the language, as do a lot of Bosnians and people from former Yugoslavia. Folks from the former Soviet Union assimilate fast. But people from the Middle East face a distinct disadvantage. Even their alphabet is different.

And as Ngendakuriyo notes, refugees and immigrants in American schools are slotted into grades based on age, not language aptitude. So a child who is 15 may be placed directly into ninth or 10th grade, even though it is absolutely the first educational experience that child has ever had.

Editor's note: This report is part 6 of "Coming to our Census," a series of reports that takes a careful look at the issues posed by the changing demographics of Utah and the nation.

Related coverage

Part 1: The changing face of Utah - Are we ready to embrace the future?
Part 2: Poll results: Utahns welcome diversity but perceptions don't always match reality
Part 3: Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?
Part 4: Latino students face barriers to higher education
Part 5: Minorities face hurdles in getting health care

Editorial: 'Coming to our Census' series takes needed, critical look at issues posed by Utah's changing demographics

Lists: Poll responses: Benefits of a more diverse population in Utah; Poll results about Census data: Perceptions don't always match reality

KSL coverage: 'Coming to our Census'

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