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Immigrant students bond under big tent  ImmigrantR-@afsc.org
 Apr 26, 2007 18:46 PDT 


Immigrant students bond under big tent
Group from many nations unites to share common experiences and battle
tuition hikes
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

Oscar Villarreal's family immi grated to the United States when times in
Colombia became too rough to endure.
His father came first. Three years later, he followed with his mother
and brother when he was just 6 years old. That was in 1988.

"I don't consider myself to be an American," said Villarreal, a
24-year-old Rutgers University student whose family now lives in
Elizabeth. "And I'm not really Colombian either. I'm in limbo."

Villarreal and other students gathered in New Brunswick yesterday under
a yellow and white canopy adorned with flags from Cuba, Puerto Rico,
Colombia and Argentina as part of Rutgers University's Tent State -- a
national outdoor student movement opposing rising costs of higher

But these students didn't just lament high tuition prices. They focused
on its impact on minorities.

"When tuition goes up, it keeps Latinos and blacks off campuses, because
unfortunately, they tend to have lower incomes," said Malena Attar, a
21-year-old who emigrated from Argentina when she was 3. "How can a
public university like Rutgers not serve the public?"

Amid the chaos of tents, music, speeches and protesters, a small group
of students shared poignant immigrant stories of hardship. Being an
immigrant means struggling to straddle two cultures, they said. It means
never really fitting in, confusing the values of two worlds, and
constantly battling misconceptions, they said.

"You always feel a little lost. You're trying to figure out your
identity. It's the terror of growing up not knowing who you are," said
Attar, who created a student organization last year called Pueblo Latino
to raise awareness about the clash. "It takes a lot of self-exploration
to realize we have the best of both worlds."

Being an immigrant always creates difficulty and confusion, they said.

Yelena Shvarts, 20, remembers being unable to communicate with other
children and being picked on for eating Southern Russian food -- often
large meat dumplings called mante. Shvarts felt she had to teach her
parents American customs.
"When you're a kid, all you want to do is fit in. I felt so weird. I
couldn't even ask for a crayon," said Shvarts, who escaped religious
persecution for being Jewish in Russia when she was 3 years old. "My
parents never contributed to bake sales. They cared about keeping a
clean house and getting straight A's."

Attar said she was known as the isolated, "poofy-haired girl with
glasses from Argentina," as a second-grader in Lawrenceville, Mercer

Villarreal said he felt a lot of resentment. His parents wouldn't have
left their home country had work been available and would never have
subjected their children to prejudice if they could have avoided it.

The students cope by finding others with shared experiences, even if
they don't identically mirror their own, they said. Their struggles --
some said they slept on floors for years, some went hungry and others
described cultural rifts so huge they felt suicidal -- have instilled a
sense of gratitude in them.

"It makes you understand hardship. It sets you apart," Shvarts said. "I
finally decided it's cool to be different."
Attar reminds herself about the positive side of being an immigrant with
a small tattoo she recently got on her left wrist with a saying her
parents often repeated when she felt down.

"It never rains forever," the tattoo reads, in Spanish.

Nawal Qarooni may be reached at nqar-@starledger.com or (732)
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