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Sharing our Faith: Our migrant Neighbors

Our migrant neighbors come in all shapes and sizes and colors. They are naturalized citizens, permanent legal residents, they are Dreamers, they are here on short term work visas, or they are undocumented. I think the most important thing to know about our migrant neighbors is that, just by looking at them, you cannot tell into which category they fall. You cannot judge a book by its cover.

42 years ago my father-in-law, an orchardist who ran Highland Orchards here in Covesville, told me there were some migrant workers at the neighboring migrant camp on Boaz Road. They had arrived earlier than expected in the harvest season and were asking for something, but nobody knew what. He asked if I would go interpret. It turned out they wanted ‘focos’, or lightbulbs. I had never heard of a migrant worker before, but it wasn't long before I started working with a program for Albemarle County Schools called Migrant Education which offers academic and family outreach help to migrant workers and their children.

Most migrant workers who come to the local orchards these days are H2A workers here on short term visas. They are neighbors who are in Covesville now to pick peaches, cherries, apples and grapes, but who will be back in Mexico by the end of November. While they are here, Albemarle Migrant Education offers free, voluntary, night time English classes in the camp twice a week. The classes have a teacher and enough volunteers from UVA’s Madison House Program to provide one on one tutoring. Rural Health Outreach Program at Blue Ridge Medical Center in Nelson County has a mobile “health depot” which goes to the various migrant camps in the area to offer basic health assessments and help make referrals for specific health problems.

Many people who do jobs which we might think of as migrant jobs, actually live here on a permanent basis. For example, many people who work in the local vineyards may well have started out years ago as “migrant workers” but, decided that central Virginia was a good place to settle down and raise a family. So, instead of having to move every few months and have the kids change schools several times during the school year, they put down roots here. They became our permanent neighbors.

But really, for me personally, our migrant neighbors have given me some of the great gifts of my life, their friendship expressed through big stacks of tortillas to take home, tamales galore, big bags of apples and peaches, invitations to countless quinceaneras, baptisms, and birthday parties- being welcomed into the bosoms of families with open arms and warm hearts.

Of the many migrant adults and children whom I have known over 30 years one, Lori, stands out to tell you about. She had a fairly typical migrant childhood. She was born in Mexico, when her parents moved to Florida for work, she stayed with her grandmother there. At about two years of age she moved to Florida to be with her parents. From there she moved to Covesville, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and back to Florida. I met Lori when she was five. I taught her English at Red Hill Elementary School and tutored her a couple of times a week after school in the run down apartment in Covesville where they lived. So, I got to know her and her family really well. She and I made a book together to help her learn her numbers from 1 to 10, names of animals, and simple sentence structure. We cut and colored and glued and wrote this book at school and, when it was finished, she read it to her family at home. We did a lot of academic work together, having fun at the same time. But there is one thing about Lori which made her different from other children and got me deeply involved in their lives. When Lori was in utero she developed with her head tilted at an odd angle so, when she was born, her head was not straight on her neck, but tilted to one side. This is something which would've been fixed in utero here, but she was born in rural Mexico. Since five years had passed since she'd been born, and nothing had been done about her head angle. her features had aligned themselves on her face as if her head was placed properly on her neck. She went to UVA rehab center to see a Dr. Abel, whose name I really liked, to see if there was anything he could do for her condition. He was a highly regarded surgeon with some years of experience and he had never seen a walking, talking child with this condition. He performed an operation on her neck which allowed her head to move into its normal position. At this point. Lori was living with her family, but, most importantly, her grandmother, who had come from Mexico. Her grandmother, who spoke no English and had never had a chance to go to school, went to every doctor’s appointment. She learned, along with Lori, how to put on the neck and body brace she had to wear 24/7 for months. They were troopers and followed the doctor’s orders to a T. They did exercises every day and, over time, not only did the wound heal, but her facial features aligned properly on her face.

Now, Lori is happily married with two beautiful young daughters. She is an extremely responsible, hard-working adult with a generous spirit and great love for her family. She understands the importance of a stable living condition and being able to provide her children with so much that she did not have growing up. She lives in Pennsylvania but comes to Virginia to visit her family, especially her grandmother, and from time to time she calls me for advice or to let me know how she's doing. Though she doesn't live in Virginia now, and her story may not be typical, Lori gives you a good idea of what our migrant neighbors are like. Knowing full well there are exceptions, the vast majority of our migrant neighbors are risk takers. People who were willing to give up their homeland, their family, the comfort of living where they understand the language and the culture in order to improve their lives and the lives of their children. They are brave, resilient, honest, honorable, generous, hard-working people with a lot to contribute. They are wonderful folks for us to be able to call neighbors.

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