Thank you ITD for creating this project that gave me the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, [to] get on my first plane, and to form so many incredibly strong bonds that I know will last a lifetime.
Norway Youth Leadership participant
Valley, Spanish Groups Exchange Views on Immigration

 [ Originally published on: Saturday, January 19, 2008 ]

What can America, often called a nation of immigrants, learn from Spain, a country whose immigration experience is just beginning?

A group of eight Americans, most of them from the Pioneer Valley, recently spent a lot of time exploring that very question. In a program organized by the Amherst-based Institute for Training and Development, the American group played host to a group from Spain`s south, and vice versa.

"In the U.S., we`ve been dealing with this (immigration) for a long time, so we bring a lot of experience to the table. But they bring a freshness to the table," said James Ayres, director of the Center for New Americans, a nonprofit organization that assists immigrants and refugees at offices in Northampton, Amherst and Greenfield.

Ayres and another Northamptonite who joined in the exchange, Jackson Street Elementary School teacher Kimberly Gerould, said the experience gave them a broader perspective on immigration as well as new ideas about how to help immigrants.

Twelve Spaniards, with backgrounds in immigrant support services, education, local government and journalism visited the U.S. for three weeks last June, making stops around the Pioneer Valley and in Boston, New York, Washington and Chicago. Three members of the group were themselves immigrants to Spain from northern Africa.

An eight-person American delegation went to the Andalucia region of Spain from Nov. 24 to Dec. 8, visiting the cities of Cordoba, Seville, Jerez and Melilla and meeting with Moroccan immigrants and people working on immigration issues.
In addition to Ayres and Gerould, the American delegation included Betty Lichtenstein, director of Enlace de Familias in Holyoke; and Mohamed F. Good, director of programs at the Somali Development Center in Springfield; and others from outside the Pioneer Valley whose work involves minority and immigrant issues.

The exchange program was funded by the State Department`s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the U.S. embassy in Madrid.

In Spain, the phenomenon of immigration is a recent one, and the incoming population is made up mostly of north African Muslims.

"Up until a few decades ago, it was a country that people emigrated from rather than immigrated to, because they economic situation was so bad," said Julie Hooks Davis, project director for the Institute for Training and Development, which coordinated the exchange with C￳rdoba English Teachers Association in Spain.

In the two decades since it joined the European Union, Spain`s economy has improved, and now the country is experiencing an influx of immigrants. Most immigrants come from Morocco, which lies just across the Mediterranean Sea from Andalucia.

Until the end of the 15th century, much of Spain was dominated by the Moors of northern Africa, and mosques of that period remain as some of the country`s historical and architectural treasures. Today, the influx of Moroccans is seen as something of a return, like history coming full circle. Native Spaniards who adopt Islam are said to "revert" rather than convert.

Spain`s immigration experience is markedly different from America`s. And yet in some ways it can be startlingly similar, said Gerould.

One stop on their trip was in Melilla, a Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco. The city was affluent and cosmopolitan, but a trip to its edge revealed another side, Gerould said. Surrounding it is a three-tiered, 20-foot-high wire fence the European Union helped Spain to erect in order to keep out illegal immigrants and regulate foreign workers.

Gerould said 25,000 to 30,000 people cross the border daily. Huge lines of traffic formed as Moroccans who work or do business in Melilla waited to pass through the fence, often taking with them huge packages or old furniture.

It could as easily have been a scene from the Mexican border as from the Mediterranean coast, Gerould said.

"We`re really dealing with very similar issues now," she said.

But the Spanish government`s approach to those issues is a lot different, and the public in general seems to take a more hospitable attitude toward immigrants, Gerould said.

"They talk about hosting immigrants, about welcoming them," she said.

Ayres said the Spanish government does a lot to help Moroccans integrate into society, not simply expecting them assimilate Spanish culture, but by educating native Spaniards about Moroccan culture.

A huge portion of Spain`s immigrant population, according to Hooks Davis and Ayres, are minors as young as 13 who come alone, often illegally, with the intention of sending money back home.

Ayres said members of the American group had lots of opportunities to meet with and learn about Moroccan immigrants. Many in the group spoke Spanish and Arabic, and translated for each other. "That made it a very intimate experience because it made it informal and spontaneous," Ayres said.

While in western Massachusetts last summer, the Spanish delegation visited the Jackson Street Elementary School, the Center for New Americans, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts, among other places.

At Jackson Street, the Spanish group was introduced to Families with Power, a group of parents of minority students in Northampton schools. Gerould, whose background is in teaching English as a second language, said the delegation took away some tips on advocating for Moroccan children in Spanish schools.

"The government is doing more for immigrants in Spain, but maybe here there`s more community organization at the grass roots level or in nonprofit organizations."

The Institute for Training and Development is gearing up for a similar exchange with the Netherlands, which Hooks Davis said will explore that country`s Muslim immigrant population. A Dutch delegation visited the U.S. in November, and an American group will head to Holland in May.