In The Midst of A Demographic Shift, Wethersfield Looks To Help New Mothers Across Region

Unravel the din of voices that fills Wethersfield’s Trinity Episcopal Church on weekday mornings, and you will hear seven languages spoken by nine mothers and their 12 children.

“Arabic, Albanian, Bosnian, Chinese, Italian, Polish,” Kim Bobin, Wethersfield’s early childhood coordinator, ticked them off. “Oh, and Spanish.”

Earlier this year, the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance published a report that Bobin and Wethersfield’s school board, she said, found startling: While births in Wethersfield from 2003 to 2013 declined overall by 3 percent, the town saw a 26 percent uptick in births to foreign-born mothers during the same period.

And in 2013, nearly one in three Wethersfield babies was born to a mother who was born overseas.

Prompted by these findings and armed with a $50,000 federal grant, Wethersfield rolled out a Family Learning Program last month that offers free English as a second language and parenting classes, nine hours a week, to mothers in 14 Hartford-area towns.

“We’re seeing a demographic shift,” said Michael Emmett, superintendent of Wethersfield schools. “Our bilingual population in the schools is well over 300, and that is something we need to adapt to.”

In October alone, 16 children from foreign countries or Puerto Rico enrolled in Wethersfield schools, he said.

The classes at Trinity Episcopal, held every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, are split in half: For the first hour, the mothers read to their kids, who range in age from 1 to 5, make crafts and take part in parenting workshops. For the second half, the kids play in a nursery while their mothers take ESL classes.

In one classroom, Sharon Silvestrini, a retired Hartford teacher of 30 years, helped Jenniffer Vazquez Garcia and Alawia Mahmoud navigate the English language. Garcia, 28, moved to Hartford from Puerto Rico three years ago; Mahmoud, 37, left her home country of Sudan in 2008.

Silvestrini was explaining how the plosive, tacked-on “t” can differentiate between what one can, and can’t, do.

“Tell me something you can’t do,” she told Garcia.

“I can’t help my child with homework,” Garcia said.

“Is that something you want to do?” Silvestrini asked.

It is the mothers’ desire to help their kids, more than a want to improve their own English, that brings them to class, Bobin said. The key to the program is the on-site nursery, she said, staffed by aides from the local YMCA, where the kids can play and make friends while their mothers are in class.

“A lot of the times parents won’t come in if they have to leave their kids at home,” Bobin said. “But if they know their kids will be taken care of — if they know their kids will have fun — they’ll come, and they won’t feel guilty about it.”

Nerma Mustafic, 30, enrolled because her 3-year-old daughter was jealous of her older sister, who started kindergarten this year, she said.

“I signed up first because of her, and also to improve my English,” Mustafic said. “But in the beginning it was more for her, because she was so, so excited for it.”

Mustafic, who moved from Bosnia to Hartford six year ago, has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Sarajevo, but said she needs to polish her English if she wants to work as a psychologist in the United States.

Wethersfield is home to a growing Bosnian population; in 2013, 10 children were born to mothers from Bosnia, the most of any country outside the United States, according to the Early Childhood Alliance report.

In 2011, Mustafic married a Bosnian man who had moved to the United States in 2000, and four months later came with him to Hartford’s South End, where he was living with his family.

For the college-educated aspiring psychologist who just months before was living in a European capital surrounded by friends and family, it was a humbling and lonely time.

“When you speak broken English,” she said, “people think you’re not educated.”

Mustafic struggled to communicate with doctors when she was pregnant with her first child — a discouraging and, at times, frightening experience.

The program includes a workshop on how to read and fill out health forms, which can be cryptic to native English speakers, Bobin said, and undecipherable to nonnative speakers.

“My mother’s from Mexico, and I know how hard it can be when you’re not entirely comfortable speaking the language,” Bobin said. “There’s a homesickness, a physical longing for home, and it’s scary to raise a baby here.”

Jessica Aparo, 28, moved to Wethersfield from Sicily three months ago with her husband and two young sons. Aparo doesn’t speak much English yet, but with the help of Google Translate, she explained they left Italy because of its meager job prospects.

“When we had our first boy we wanted to move to America,” she tapped out on her phone. “In Italy there is no future.”

Her husband has family in Wethersfield, and the town is home to a few immigrants from Siracusa, she said, the southern Sicilian city where Aparo grew up and where her entire family still lives.

Aparo worked as a hairdresser for 14 years in Italy, and she hopes to one day rent a chair in a Wethersfield salon. Her hair is dyed pink, her own handiwork.

Like Aparo, some of the mothers are hoping to reach heights they’d enjoyed in their homelands, that they’ve since been dislodged from after moving to a new country, with young children in tow and a new language to learn.

Mustafic is confident she’ll find work as a psychologist, but knows some immigrants never make good on dreams that seemed attainable in their homelands. Her brother-in-law, who was studying law in Bosnia before the family left in 2000, took the first job he could find when he arrived in Hartford — driving a truck. A church had purchased their plane tickets, and the family needed to pay them back.

He never returned to law school, and still drives a truck.

“He’s a very smart man, but did not get a very fair life,” she said.

For her daughters, 3 and 5, she treads a line between pushing them to learn English and holding them to speaking Bosnian, their first language, at home.

“I want my kids to speak Bosnian and English. If you don’t respect yourself, then you cannot learn how to respect other people,” she said. “I want my kids to know who they are.”

This summer, they visited Mustafic’s family in Sarajevo. She was happy to see her kids speak Bosnian with their grandparents, but “when they’re playing together, without others,” she said, “they’re speaking English.”

It was a bittersweet feeling, seeing her daughters at their most comfortable fall into a tongue that is foreign to her.

“But they were born here,” she said, shrugging. “They’re Americans.”

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