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(HOST) As the immigration debate continues, commentator Madeleine Kunin remembers her own arrival in this country, and reflects on what it feels like to be a new immigrant in Vermont.

(KUNIN) One person wrote about her mother’s first experience upon arrival – quote – “she tells this wonderful story of how, at fourteen, her first step off the airplane was in the snow. She recalls the cold icy texture of it against her naked sandled foot… She never talks about any other part of that day, just her first sight of snow.”

A recent conference on ‘creating a welcoming community’ at St. Michael’s college brought together some two hundred and fifty teachers, social workers and health professionals to develop skills to make immigrants feel at home here. I addressed the group and spoke of my own immigrant experience which helped shape me. As a child, I couldn’t speak English and wanted desperately to be like all of my classmates. But my immigrant experience was vastly different from that of many immigrants today who come from Africa and the Sudan. I had seen snow, we had had a middle class life, and most of all, I could blend in, after a while, because I was white. It is difficult in any Vermont town not to stand out as a black man, woman or child walking down the street.

How can we open our communities and our hearts to people who are very different from us, but have the same aspirations as we do for ourselves and for our children? One way is to start a new program, like the Vermont Teacher Diversity Scholarship, which is a student loan forgiveness program that brings teachers from different backgrounds to Vermont. Another way is to learn new languages and about new cultures. But most of all, we have to develop new attitudes.

When we welcome a stranger into our midst, we are not only doing something good for someone else, we are enriching ourselves. We think we know this, since almost every American can trace his or her roots to someplace else, and yet, there are many Americans who fear that immigrants take more than they give. They may take away our language – a fear reflected when the congress recently voted on a law mandating English as our official language. They make take away our jobs, and even our culture. Other Americans argue that new immigrants take jobs that need to be filled, including farm workers in Vermont. And they give us a glimpse of the world beyond our borders.

Who wins the national debate on immigration depends on how each of us relates to our neighbors, how we talk to our children when they tell us about the new kid in the class, who doesn’t speak English, who looks different.

To welcome that family, we can do the traditional thing – bring over a plate of brownies, but with it, bring the deeper understanding that this person has never seen snow.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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