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BIG CITY: Human Rights Center helps address challenges

By Kirk Ross
Not long ago, I got to witness something you don’t see a lot of – a combined Water Festival and fiesta at Abbey Court. The Water Festival, known as Thingyan, is the New Year celebration in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Fiesta you probably already have a grasp of.

It’s become a remarkable annual event – a convergence of cultures with a traditional dance by girls in elaborate costumes, a mariachi band, free tamales and a water balloon free-for-all. It was also a testament to the work by UNC’s Human Rights Center, whose volunteers have focused a tremendous amount of energy on community-building at Abbey Court, especially in improving the lives of the children there.

I suppose at some point we’ll hear the real reason why the complex’s major owner wants the center out. Right now, considering the good work the center’s doing and the long, difficult history of the place, the reasons ring hollow.

Ten years ago, I wandered through what was then called Old Well Apartments with a notebook trying to get a better understanding of the lives of people caught between two poles of American thought – the one that says we’re a beacon of liberty and the other that says get out.

By then, the complex had evolved from mainly cheap student housing to the home of the largest concentration of immigrants in our area. My guide and interpreter was a school employee working on her own time. She’d done a lot of visits there, and knew the place well. The school system had been working to get Latino parents more involved and more comfortable going to the schools and interacting with teachers.

A couple of years earlier, I’d covered the elementary redistricting caused by the opening of Scroggs Elementary School. Elementary redistricting is the biggie because for most kids it sets up the geographical associations a child will carry through middle and high schools. The schools here have a policy that tries to balance the student population. During redistricting, that meant moving a sizable population of Latino students from Carrboro Elementary to Scroggs. To ease the transition, the schools had put in a lot of work building bridges into the rapidly growing community of immigrants.

Visiting the Old Well families in their homes and hearing firsthand their circumstances and aspirations revealed a complicated world, one where children, parents, aunts and uncles held differing degrees of legal status and integration into the outside world. Some were city people, some were country. Most sent money back home and missed their friends and families terribly.

Everyone there seemed on their way to somewhere else. Some places were homey and comfortable, but even those felt temporary. Old Well was where you landed and got your bearings.

The economy was fairly good then and there was money to be made. The university was on a building binge and would be for some time.

Now, 10 years later, times are far different. The economy, especially for anyone in construction and the associated trades, is in an extended slump. The university isn’t building much and may not for a while.

The post 9/11 immigration crackdown changed the economics and the demographics of Abbey Court as well. Bigger companies and institutions now check the accuracy of Social Security numbers prior to hiring. If you’re undocumented, you are likely further underground than you were 10 years ago.

A community of Karen refugees fleeing conflicts near the border of Thailand and Myanmar has moved in. Their legal status, similar to that of those who immigrated here from El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, allows them to land jobs at the hospital and university housekeeping that were once held by Latino workers. You can imagine the tension that might cause.

Given the history of Abbey Court and the current complicated flux of the place, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to kick out an organization that has made the place more livable and continues to build those important bridges into the immigrant communities that live here.

Let’s hope that the management reconsiders and that the towns and the university continue to support the work of the center, which has a role to play in addressing a wide range of challenges. From tutoring students and providing afterschool programs to finding a solution to the day-laborer issues, we need the energy, understanding and insights the center has to offer.

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