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Essays document life for LI families during pandemic

Jessica Arizaga wrote about her family's struggles during

Jessica Arizaga wrote about her family's struggles during the pandemic, including schooling for daughter Amanda Vasquez. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Jessica Arizaga never thought the world would come to a stop.

Until the coronavirus arrived.

Just seven months before the March shutdown, the Ecuadorian emigrant came to the United States with her daughter to join her husband Diego Vasquez, 31, in Port Washington. She got a job at a pet store, her daughter enrolled in school and the family was united.

But in March, she lost her job, her daughter’s school closed, and her husband’s work hours were reduced. "The changes in my life were extreme and out of control," the 30-year-old mother wrote in October in an essay.

Arizaga’s entry was one of more than a dozen essays the Port Washington Public Library has collected over the past few months from its English For Speakers of Other Languages students — many of whom are new immigrants — to document their experience through the pandemic.

"They had very emotional feelings because, as you would expect, it took them a lot of effort to put their lives together before the pandemic," said Peter Bengelsdorf, 70, a former Newsday editor who has taught the English classes since 2007. "Suddenly, the rug is pulled out from large aspects of [their] lives."

On top of the new reality brought on by the pandemic, the immigrants faced the challenges of a language and cultural barrier.

Lily Jiang could barely understand her children’s teachers when she came to Port Washington from China in late 2018. Now her English has improved to a point where she could have basic communication with school faculty. But her two boys’ education presented a different challenge this year.

Jiang used most of her essays to ponder the logistics of school reopening and the ramifications of opting for virtual learning for her children, a first-grader and a 12th-grader.

"It’s hard for parents, like me, to choose the plan because kids need classmates and teachers in-person," she wrote. "I’m afraid kids have other [health] problems if we are at home too long."

Arizaga’s essay touched more on the pandemic’s effect on her mental health.

"My biggest fear is that my family will get the virus, or that I will get it myself," she wrote. "Every day, I imagine losing a member of my family or dying myself. I feel nervous and scared."

Arizaga’s teacher Haydee Buitron, 68, cried when she read Arizaga’s essay.

"It touched my heart," said Buitron, an Ecuadorian emigrant who lives in Glen Cove. "They not only are far from their family but [she] also lost [her job]. It was really difficult."

In an interview, Arizaga said in Spanish that she is worried every time her husband goes out.

"When I think of COVID, I think of death," she said.

Amid the chaos and worries, taking English courses has remained a constant for Arizaga. It has allowed her to help her 7-year-old daughter Amanda Vasquez learn the same new language.

"While the pandemic was going on, I was determined to learn English," she said. "Over time, we’ve been adapting to the language. … We’re not scared anymore" of communicating in English.

COVID-19 Public Memory Project

  • The essays from English learners were part of a COVID-19 Public Memory Project the Port Washington Public Library started in April.

  • The library has received more than 200 items, including personal memoirs, poetry and digital photos.

  • The essay collection, organized by Peggy O’Hanlon, the library’s English For Speakers of Other Languages coordinator, has received 15 entries.

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