Great story on Jeff Thaler’s ’74 Winter Study class, discussed at EphBlog last year.

Their lives so far couldn’t have been more different, yet Jason Rapaport and Alain Nkulu have fostered a spirit of brotherhood in a few days that could close a million-mile gap.

Rapaport is a Williams College student who is living with Nkulu and his family this month. Rapaport’s stay is part of a unique winter study program, started by a Portland lawyer, that offers first-hand knowledge of the modern immigrant experience.

Nkulu, 39, is a former veterinarian who hails from Lubumbashi, a city of 1.3 million people in the wartorn Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was jailed and sentenced to death for opposing the ruling party and came to Portland in 2007 seeking political asylum.

Rapaport, 20, grew up on a 2,000-acre cattle ranch in Big Timber, a one-street town on the southeastern plains of Montana. A junior history major, he has already been accepted to medical school and plans to study international health care.

As different as the two men are, they have found similarities in the ways that their families came to this country.

Rapaport is Jewish – the first Jewish person that Nkulu, a devout Christian, has ever met. Rapaport’s grandparents fled Germany during the Holocaust. They came to the United States with nothing and settled in Kansas City, Mo.

“They had to build themselves up from square one,” Rapaport said. “So, we’re both relative newcomers to this country, and we both want to make America a stronger place.”

Rapaport is one of six Williams College students who are living with local immigrant families and working with students who are learning to speak English in Portland’s public schools.

The monthlong program was developed by Jeff Thaler, a 1974 Williams College graduate who is a lawyer at Bernstein Shur in Portland. Four students participated each of the past two years. This year, nine students signed up for the program, so he had each one write an essay and picked the top six.

“That’s how many I can fit in my wife’s minivan,” Thaler said. “With all of their luggage, it was tough. It’s a lot of work, making arrangements with the host families and the schools. But I’ve been very moved by the people I’ve met.”

Read the whole thing. Kudos to Thaler. Other excepts and a photo below.

Thaler became interested in Portland’s growing immigrant community after visiting Africa nine years ago with his wife and two sons. The Williams College program grew out of his experience mentoring a Sudanese boy at Portland High School five years ago.

Thaler believes his program is the only one of its kind in the country that allows students to live with immigrant families. He has talked with several colleges here in Maine and across the country about the possibility of expanding the Portland program or replicating it elsewhere.

Thaler said the program offers an extraordinary cross-cultural experience that requires everyone involved to open themselves up to new people, new cultures and new ideas.

“It takes guts for a student to come here in January and live with complete strangers,” Thaler said. “But the people who really have guts are the host families, who open their homes in a way that few people would be willing to do.”

The Williams College students arrived Jan. 3 and will leave Jan. 28. They are living with refugee and immigrant families who are Congolese, Cambodian, Somali and Latin American. They are working with English-language learners at Riverton Community School, King Middle School and Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools.

Rapaport is working at King Middle. Jenny Coronel, 22, is working at Portland High. She is a senior history major who spent last spring studying migration issues in Morocco. The daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants, she’s from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., is fluent in Spanish and French and speaks a little Arabic.

At Portland High last week, Coronel worked one-on-one with Zakaria Hassan, a 16-year-old Somali boy. As she quietly reviewed his writing esson, he became visibly frustrated over each error.

“Practice makes perfect,” Coronel said, comforting him. He smiled and continued to erase and correct each mistake.

“I see how difficult it is for new arrivals to acclimate themselves into the classroom,” Coronel said later. “The teachers do a great job of balancing between the new arrivals and the students who have been here for a while.”

Coronel is living with a Cambodian family.

“When you live with people and you’re welcomed into their homes, it gives you a better understanding of their lives,” Coronel said. “The parents listen to Cambodian music in their bedroom, while the children are developing much more American lifestyles.”

With the Nkulu family, Jason Rapaport has enjoyed far-ranging conversations about religion, culture and politics. They have exchanged traditional prayers and shared meals. They introduced him to tilapia and cassava. Rapaport showed them how to make spaghetti and tuna salad sandwiches.

Alain and Mireille Nkulu have shared intimate details of their lives, including how they left two children, now 9 and 11, with family members in the Congo. Alain, who works as a janitor at Idexx in Westbrook, has a residency hearing in Boston in two months. He hopes to win the right to bring his children here soon and resume a career in veterinary medicine.

They have a third child, Mercy, a rambunctious boy born here 20 months ago, and Mireille is due to give birth to another boy in February. They plan to name him Ashael, which is Hebrew for “Made by God.” They also plan to maintain a friendship with Rapaport after he returns to college.

“It is really wonderful to have Jason in our home,” Alain Nkulu said. “He is an intelligent young man and it is a privilege to have someone from his tribe in our home.”

Do we have any readers who have taken this class? Tell us your story!

Print  •  Email