Rice students expand Spanish-language skills with help of Cuban refugees

In carefully practiced Spanish, 24 Rice students in Victoria Arbizu-Sabater’s two Spanish Language and Culture classes recently gave colorful PowerPoint presentations in which they recounted their experiences and impressions gathered from conversations with Cuban refugees at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

Alison Archabal. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Baker College sophomore Alison Archabal presented on her conversations with Cuban refugees in class Feb. 19. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The opportunity to interact with the refugees was the brainchild of Arbizu-Sabater, who saw it as an ideal way to further the course’s goal of developing students’ socio-linguistic and socio-cultural knowledge in Spanish to effectively communicate and interact with Spanish speakers at an upper-intermediate level of competence.

“These (Cuban) people just came (to Houston) a month or few weeks ago,” said Arbizu-Sabater, a senior lecturer of Spanish in the School of Humanities’ Center for Languages and Intercultural Communication. “This is a wonderful platform for my students to contact real native speakers here in Houston. I tell my students to be open. It’s not an interview. It’s about both sides getting to know each other.”

Arbizu-Sabater said Martin Cominsky, an acquaintance who is president of Interfaith Ministries, was supportive when she approached him last year about an activity that would bring her students to the organization’s offices on Main Street and, in turn, invite a group of the refugees, or “clients,” to the Rice campus. The Refugee Services Department of Interfaith Ministries, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, Episcopal Migration Ministries and Church World Service, resettles legal refugees fleeing their homelands in fear of political, social or religious persecution. Each year hundreds of refugee families arrive in Houston through Interfaith Ministries, where they receive assistance in securing housing, learning to speak English, gaining employment and becoming self-sufficient.

“We’ve never had this kind of partnership; it’s really innovative,” Cominsky said. “The students are a very great help – a refreshing help. The Cubans share their culture, and the students share American culture with them. The clients also get to see the beautiful Rice campus and enjoy lunch (while there).”

Arbizu-Sabater’s students meet with the Cubans three times during the semester for conversation in Spanish: one time in class and over lunch at Wiess College and twice at Interfaith Ministries. Each meeting is at least one hour. Arbizu-Sabater first started making this activity a part of her courses last semester.

Learning about life in Cuba and the US

Cierra Duckworth, a Wiess College sophomore, discussed the backgrounds of the Cubans she met through Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

Cierra Duckworth, a Wiess College sophomore, discussed the backgrounds of the Cubans she met through Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

According to Lazaro Diaz-Berrio, one of the Cuban clients at Interfaith Ministries, coming to the U.S. was a tough but rewarding road to take. “It was extraordinary,” Diaz-Berrio said through an interpreter. “I have always wanted to come here, but I never knew it was going to happen this way. It was a coincidence. I was just at the right place at the right time. It was the worst experience I have gone through, and I don’t desire anyone to go through what I had to go through. We found fishermen who would feed us. When we landed, it was the happiest day of my life. It is indescribable to explain how I got here; it is the most beautiful thing to happen to an immigrant. When I went to immigration, I felt treated like a person. The people at Rice made me feel like I was talking to friends. They were so nice. I liked listening to them; it was emotional and exciting to have something like that. We don’t have that in Cuba.”

Heading out beyond Rice’s hedges turned out to be no problem for Alexia Rauen, a Wiess College junior majoring in Latin American studies, who took the course in the fall semester. “It’s a little daunting, but it was actually really easy because you just hop on the light rail,” Rauen said. She was intrigued as she learned about the Cubans’ educational and professional backgrounds. She met with a doctor and a couple consisting of an engineer and art history Ph.D. recipient. The couple told her they worried that the current easing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba would force them to return to Cuba. “You have to be delicate about how you’re asking, but they’re usually pretty open about it,” she said of the range of serious topics she would discuss with the clients. Rauen’s participation in the course led her to enroll this spring in the Trends in Cuban Culture class taught by Luis Duno-Gottberg, associate professor of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American studies.

Michael Do, a Lovett College sophomore majoring in kinesiology-sports medicine and biochemistry and cell biology, said the experience had a “dramatic” impact on his Spanish-speaking skills. “I took Spanish all four years in my high school, but I never have had to apply it until I got to Rice,” said Do, who is taking Arbizu-Sabater’s course this spring. “I have genuinely enjoyed having sincere conversations, and I have learned that native speakers do not really care whether or not I speak perfect Spanish. Beyond learning more about the Spanish language, I also learned a greater sense of cultural awareness, and this now has a greater bearing especially since I am now in Houston — a vastly more diverse place than my hometown in Illinois.”

Students in Victoria Arbizu-Sabater's Advanced Spanish for Bicultural Students class had lunch with Cuban refugees in the Wiess College commons Jan 27.

Students in Victoria Arbizu-Sabater’s Advanced Spanish for Bicultural Students class had lunch with Cuban refugees in the Wiess College commons Jan 27.

Jones College sophomore Alex Quam said the activity opened his eyes to the life of refugees. Taking the course last semester, he spoke mostly with a man named Eduardo, who attended the University of Cuba for a couple of years. He studied physical education there and decided to not complete his studies but instead move to the U.S. “For me, I learned a lot about the difficulties these individuals face when adjusting to a very different culture and completely different life,” Quam said. “He (Eduardo) shared the many different changes that accompany such a move, from the frequency of using English to getting used to the new social norms. For him, he gained a better perspective about Houston’s culture and received advice about how to adjust to the city as a whole.”

Quam’s Spanish skills improved too. “There were occasions where I had to ask Eduardo to repeat things, which he was happy to do,” he said. “Other than that, I maintained the pace of a regular conversation, which was sometimes challenging but ultimately very rewarding.”

For more information about Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, go to www.imgh.org.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.