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.

"Sometimes they are coming into a new family where that parent has entered into a relationship, has other children, and so this child becomes like an outsider who does not feel like a part of the family," Rattray said.

The problem is compounded by the lack of services to help Jamaican migrant parents and children navigate the challenges.

Rattray said about 20 percent of her cases are related to separation issues involving parents do not know how to reunite with their children.

Some children end up in the juvenile justice system, she said. This issue, she said, must be addressed by Jamaica and the United States. "Otherwise more money will be spent to correct problems that could have been prevented. If you don't catch these issues early, then you end up with all the crime and violence," she said.

Rattray sees hope as more parents seek counseling, although sometimes only when events reach a crisis.

Basil Wilson, dean of criminal justice at Monroe College and former provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Jamaican children not proficient in English find the U.S. school system far more challenging. These children, he said, will end up in remedial classes.

This is particularly so such states as New York, a melting pot for migrants from all over the world.

Wilson said that even with the presence of Jamaican alumni associations in urban communities such as the Bronx, more must be done to help such children adapt.

Jamaica's consul general in New York, Genevieve Brown-Metzger, said migrant children acculturating to the U.S. school system has long been an issue. Jamaican alumni associations sought to address the problem several years ago, after they were bombarded with reports of children falling by the wayside.

"We were getting a lot of calls on problem students who were said to be disrespectful or not paying keen attention in class," she said. "A teacher would complain that a child would not make eye contact, and that was seen as disrespectful."

Brown-Metzger said cultural differences were somewhat to blame. In the Jamaican culture, staring down a teacher might be misconstrued as disrespectful.

Alejandro Portes, a professor at Princeton University and a top U.S. scholar on immigrant integration, captured the dynamic of migrant children's lives in his book "Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation," co-written by Rubén Rumbaut of the University of California at Irvine. The book is based on interviews with 5,262 children of immigrants.

According to Portes, children of some immigrant groups -- among them Jamaican nationals -- may be significantly at risk of dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law and assimilating to the bottom of American society.

Portes found that when parents are poor and uneducated, they are subject to discrimination, affecting how their children assimilate.

"Those children often get a negative reception here -- poor support from government agencies and often generalized discrimination. They are racially stereotyped as black or brown, and that makes the process of adaptation difficult," he said in his book.

According to Portes, it is telling that three-fourths of the black children in the sample, mostly Haitians and Jamaicans, say that no matter how much education they get, they will always be subject to prejudice.

Elaine Jarrett, a Jamaican who migrated to the United States at age 11, knows firsthand the difficulties of migrant children adapting to the U.S. school system. Like many others, she was uprooted from Jamaica, arriving in New York only a few days before beginning school.

"I was excited when I heard I was coming to America because everyone always talk about going to foreign countries, and as a child you think everything there is so wonderful and it is paradise," she said.

But for her, the first challenge was having to deal with diversity in the school. "Coming from an environment where all the teachers were black to one where the majority were white was really a very different experience," Jarrett recalled.

She quickly learned to keep quiet in class so her Jamaican dialect did not stand out, and she focused on giving an appropriate response when asked a question.

Jarrett recalled when the English teacher asked if she knew what a period was, and she responded that it was a "full stop," an expression used in the Jamaican school system. "At least he understood what I meant," she said. "But the kids thought that was weird."

She and other Jamaican children were called "coconuts," as American children associated those from the islands with palm and coconut trees.

Like many children of West Indian migrants, Jarrett knew there was no room for slacking. Although her father never attended a parent-teacher meeting or checked her homework, he demanded a good report card. That kept her on a straight path, and helped her graduate from high school and college and entering the workforce.

In those days, Jarrett said, special-education classes were not as available, and those who buckled under the pressure or failed to perform at a certain level were labeled "no good" by teachers.

She recalled a male Jamaican student who was regarded as a constant "pain in the neck" by teachers who said he would never "amount to anything." He became a brain surgeon.

Today, Jarrett said, the student might have been put on medications, which was not accepted then by the Jamaican community. Counseling is usually not an option for many Jamaican parents, and an even greater taboo for many is to have their children on medication for behavioral disorders.

A study done by Audrey Pottinger, a consultant clinical psychologist at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, titled "Implications for Counseling Immigrant Families in Host Country" noted that insensitivity to the cultural traditions of clients can impede communication.

The study said that West Indians see counseling as indicative of pathology and may feel stigmatized if their child is referred for individual help.

Special orientation sessions for new immigrant children and their parents would be valuable, Pottinger said. School counselors also must be aware that many migrant children are misclassified at school, because of language differences or adjustment problems.

"Often the 'acting-out' behavior of the child reflects the difficulty of the transition, and this may be compounded by parental pressure and expectations," Pottinger said.

Gail Ferguson, a clinical psychologist, is conducting a study of about 400 families in Kingston, and in Illinois and New York, with the goal of creating a profile of young Jamaican immigrants as compared with American families. "We could have a profile of those kids that are doing well in school versus those who are struggling, and this profile, when put together, will help professionals and families," she said.

Ferguson said more programs are needed to help Jamaican migrant children adjust to the U.S. school system, including the possibility of post- and pre-migration counseling.

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