Offering Immigrant Children the 'Write' to Freedom

Freedom is hard to appreciate when you have it. It is easy to take for granted being able to walk down the street safely and unbothered. It is easy to take for granted going where you want when you want to. It is easy to forget that so many people cannot speak their mind, cannot speak at all, cannot leave their homes. We forget, if we're lucky, but so many people cannot help but remember.

We think we understand the deprivation of freedom from the images we see displayed on the news: the children's bodies washed ashore, not quite having made it to the safety of a free country; the black men beaten and killed by the powers that be. Documentaries like Wolfpack show us the poor and afraid seemingly firsthand. But there is no knowing like knowing.

I sat for two hours recently in a courthouse in Long Island's Southold Town, there to defend myself against an unfair parking violation. I watched as young people -- white, black, and Hispanic, some handcuffed, some not -- stood in front of a judge, their court-appointed lawyer trying to help defend their acts of defiance. I twitched impatiently at my forced waiting, speaking to the officers a number of times in annoyance about how much longer I would have to be there. My children were waiting. We had a trip planned to a friend's house in the Hamptons.

I watched, grief-stricken, as a long brown-haired boy, pants slung low under a tucked-in button-down, asked the judge for a jail sentence instead of yet another probation he would most certainly break. I watched as he was taken away, offered one phone call. I watched as police cleared the path for a Hispanic man, feet bound by chains, hands pulled together in metal cuffs. I felt my own need to escape keenly. It became hard to breathe, imagining that we were here, they and I, the free and the not-at-all-free, in the same room, in the same town, in the same world. There but for the Grace of God...

Poverty and the plight of the powerless is hard to behold firsthand. It is something so many people try to forget, save a few distant images on screens or words uttered in calm monotone on NPR while we drink our morning coffee. Some people put themselves in the middle of such situations and try, against all odds, to help.

Stephen Haff, the founder and executive director of Still Waters in a Storm, is one of those people. Singlehandedly, he runs his storefront afterschool program for mostly Ecuadoran and Mexican immigrant children in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, offering opportunities for writing, reading and Latin. Music and yoga have been offered in the past, but funding is difficult.

He offers his volunteer-based program five days a week to a rotating array of about 60 children (300 are on the waiting list he keeps) whose parents don't speak English, whose poverty and resultant fear deprives them from access to what the great city they've escaped to can offer.

"These kids need to know what's possible for them in their lives, they need to understand there is a place for them out in the wider world," Mr. Haff said.

Freedom was the focus of many conversations during Still Waters' summer program. Stemming from reading of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, he led a discussion on how freedom isn't really freedom if it takes away someone else's freedom.

"We discussed what it means to share your freedom, to create unlimited non-competitive horizontal freedom where all of us, as a group, are free," Mr. Haff said.

Providing children who often feel powerless the ability to write about their experiences and share them with one another and with adults from outside the neighborhood, including many well-known authors, is a hallmark of the program.

"The safety of Still Waters makes children realize that they do have freedom of expression in the outside world," Mr. Haff said. And such a message is crucial. Immigrants who come to New York City for the freedoms it provides often deny their children freedom out of fear of the drugs and violence and anger that erupts in neighborhoods where people feel powerless.

It is a theme captured so well in Crystal Moselle's acclaimed Wolfpack, and one that Mr. Haff will feature prominently in a September 11th fundraising panel at the New School dubbed Writing, War and Peace. Readings by award-winning authors including Chris Hedges, Phil Klay, Roxana Robinson and Ashley Gilbertson will be moderated by John Freeman and accompanied by original music composed by Paul Cantelon inspired by the writings of Still Waters' children.

"Immigration is a war in and of itself," Mr. Haff said. It is writing, he believes -- that of the authors on display and that of the young immigrant children who he gives voice to -- that can open doors to peace. Amen.