World Language & Culture students translate immigrant letters for refugee ministry

World Language & Culture students translate immigrant letters for refugee ministry

I f by reading a letter one can mingle with another’s soul—as John Donne the English poet suggested—then transcribing the letters of undocumented immigrants is heart-tugging work.

I am passionate about teaching students to think critically about controversial topics that affect Hispanics.
– Dr. Virginia Terán
Three Georgia College students are learning about the struggles of immigrants detained in the United States at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. They engage personally by translating letters written by immigrants in Spanish—but also by listening to stories of their teacher’s experience.

Dr. Virginia Terán, a lecturer of Spanish in the department of world languages and cultures, is an immigrant too. She’s going back to Argentina in a few months to comply with a two-year rule for Fulbright exchange scholars and satisfy visa requirements.

“I am passionate about teaching students to think critically about controversial topics that affect Hispanics,” Terán said. “I feel it relates to me because I am an immigrant too. I am a privileged immigrant—that’s what it’s called when we come from privileged backgrounds. But even I want to come back to the United States to have a more decent lifestyle.”

“A lot of Americans live in bubbles,” she said, “not aware of the problems going on around us.”

Dr. Virginia Terán in her spanish conversation class.
Dr. Virginia Terán in her spanish conversation class.
Terán reviews these problems in Spanish with students as they strengthen vocabulary and conversational skills. As a C-bEL component to the class—Community-based Engaged Learning—students translate letters through the “Reimagine Project.” It’s part of a ministry called “El Refugio” in Lumpkin that’s building a digital archive, documenting the lives and experience of immigrants detained at the Stewart Center.

Nearly 250,000 people were detained in the U.S. in 2021, according to information on the El Refugio website.

Prior to COVID, Terán’s students visited immigrants in person at El Refugio. Since then, they’ve sent Christmas cards, in addition to translating letters. The letters are written by immigrants asking favors of volunteers at the ministry and thanking them.

Junior communication major and Spanish minor Jaylon Brooks of Augusta just translated a letter written by an immigrant his age, 19, from El Salvador. The letter acknowledges he entered the U.S. illegally to obtain a better life.

Junior Jaylon Brooks.
Junior Jaylon Brooks.
“In his own words, he says he's looking for the American dream. That's what he's pursuing,” Brooks said. “He’s hopeful to get a visa and work here, so he can continue living in this country and thrive.”

“This assignment has made immigration so real to me,” he added. “He’s literally just another guy, like me, in a really bad situation. Detention centers aren’t the best place to be in. They’re basically prisons.”

Despite being interned and isolated, many immigrants express gratitude in their letters, Terán said. Many come from “terrible conditions” in Central America. They leave their families and homes behind for a better chance in life.

Terán understands these feelings of gratitude. She came to America on a scholarship to get a master’s, then got a job at Georgia College in 2019. Going back to her homeland means less safety and longer working hours, but she’s also excited to reunite with family.

“We need to change some things in the U.S., of course. It's not a perfect country,” Terán said, “but it's also very good in many aspects, like a stable economy. So, yes, I want to come back someday, because I want to have a more decent lifestyle than I can get in my country.”

“And imagine, if I'm telling you I want a more decent type of lifestyle, and I’m a professor, right? The reality is, things are really hard back in our countries,” she said.

Argentina has an annual inflation of 50%, compared to 7% in the U.S. Walking the street isn’t safe there. Cars aren’t safe parked on the street. Passerbys steal cellphones right out of people’s hands. Being robbed is a constant threat, and laborers work “insane” hours.

Terán believes strongly she has a responsibility as an educator to expose her students to immigration issues like these. Through her own story and letters from immigrants, she gives them a powerful lesson: Why immigrants risk everything to come to the U.S.

Sophomore Alexandra Furney.
Sophomore Alexandra Furney.
Sophomore biology major Alexandra Furney of Alpharetta is getting a minor in Spanish. Translating the letters of immigrants has been a “transformative” experience for her. Learning about the immigration system makes her want to volunteer at El Refugio once her Spanish skills improve.

Reading a letter is like meeting the writer. Furney translated the letter of a young man who also sought a better life in America. Once here, his few items of clothing were worn and tattered from traveling to the U.S. He felt embarrassed by his appearance and asked El Refugio for help. He hoped new clothes would help him get a job back home if he's deported.

“I definitely empathize with him,” Furney said. “He said he feels he has lost a lot of his dignity, which was something that really tugged at my heartstrings. Because that's not ever a good feeling, for sure.”

Senior Maya Whipple, left.
Senior Maya Whipple, left.
Senior art studio major Maya Whipple of Gordon is eager to brush up on her Spanish skills. She’s a semi-finalist for the U.S. Fulbright Student Scholarship and could teach English in Argentina if she becomes a finalist. Translating letters helped her learn new phrases and conjugate verbs in Spanish more efficiently.

In his letter, her immigrant expressed deep loneliness for his family. He asked volunteers at El Refugio to visit him. Detention can last for years as immigrants wait for a court date. Often, they can’t afford lawyers and are deported.

“I felt very sad. I had a lot of sympathy for him,” Whipple said. “It seemed like he could use a friend. It made me grateful for my own situation, because I'm able to see my family whenever I want.”

“I feel more people should be educated about this, because I didn't know all this was going on— not to this extent. We often take our freedoms for granted,” she said.  

Like her classmates, Whipple has been inspired to help detained immigrants in the future.

This was Terán’s goal: for people to see the suffering of real immigrants and care.

When you study the root causes of migration, when you can put a human face to immigration by translating letters, then you begin to see this immigrant is not ‘illegal.’ This immigrant is a human being.
– Dr. Terán