Far from their island, Jamaican children struggle with new expectations

Jamaica Observer, Kingston
Friday, December 18, 2009; 1:30 PM

Samantha Graham was 10 years old, and bursting with excitement. She hadn't seen her mother in four years, and now she learned she soon would be joining her in the United States. The picture-perfect life she'd seen in so many movies soon would be hers.

She had said her goodbyes long before the day of her departure. She had given her clothes, shoes and other personal items to relatives. They now would be so less fortunate than she.

And as the Air Jamaica jet lifted to the sky above Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, her dreams and expectations soared with it. She leaned back in her seat, closed her eyes and imagined a whirlwind of good fortune in this promised land. Little did she know that her sweet dreams were about to become a nightmare.

The language was different -- everyone except Samantha seemed to have a certain twang in their speech. She had to repeat every sentence, every word. Teachers and students complained that they could not deal with her heavy Jamaican dialect.

"Some of the children would laugh and say, 'You really sound funny,' " she recalled. The little snickers about her dialect became open jokes among the children. They made fun of her all the time.

Fearful of being ridiculed, she withdrew. She rarely spoke, and even less often participated in classes. Once a top student, Graham lost interest in school and her grades plummeted.

She balked at homework assignments, became defiant and refused to get along with others. She dropped out of high school and lost her dream of becoming a teacher. Today, at 28, she works as a health aide in a nursing home in Massachusetts.

Graham's story is similar to those of thousands of Jamaican children who migrate to the United States with hopes of a better life. These expectations are often short-lived, challenged by a new culture and a new school system, as well as the problem of reuniting with parents they have not seen in years. Sometimes, they also must adapt to a new family of siblings they have never met.

Melrose Rattray, marriage and family therapist in Brooklyn, N.Y., knows too well the challenges faced by children and parents when they reunite and the effect it has on a child's performance at school.

Often, when these children rejoin their parents, there is no discussion of the emotions surrounding the separation, Rattray said.

Instead, the attitude is one of "You are here now, so let's get on with it."

This has serious implications for the child who feels that what is of value is being ignored. Often, the child arrives as a near stranger who also has lost the extended family support system of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back home.

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