Students hear real stories of coming to America from afar

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12/23/2011 12:00 PM |

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | East Marion resident Alain Dekerillis uses sign language to translate questions to his mother, Anne Sorace, from a group of Kindergarteners, first and second graders at Oysterponds Elementary School on Tuesday morning. Ms. Sorace came to America when she was 20.

East Marion resident Alain de Kerillis’ father came to America with his family at the age of 3, leaving France in exile after a close relative was killed by the Gestapo.

But Mr. de Kerillis and his hearing-impaired mother, Anne Sorace, didn’t mention that horrific tale on Tuesday when they explained to a group of elementary students at Oysterponds School in Orient why their family settled on the East End of Long Island nearly 45 years ago.

Instead, they told students the gentler side of how Ms. Sorace and her husband came to America.

Ms. Sorace lived near Paris and worked as a babysitter when, at 20 years old, she married and moved to America. Her husband owned a house in Bordeaux, France, and another in Southampton, so the couple headed away from Europe and World War II to start a family on Long Island.

“She’s an incredible mom,” Mr. de Kerillis said. “She raised four hearing boys in a regular world, which is really incredible.”

Ms. Sorace’s story about emigrating to America was part of a new district program called The Oral History Project. The school worked with Oysterponds Historical Society to design the program, which aims to teach students about different cultures and life experiences.

Another of Tuesday’s guest speakers was former Oysterponds principal and longtime Orient resident Don Boerum, who spoke to a group of fifth- and sixth-graders about the history of European families who settled in the area.

“Does anybody know a big restaurant in Greenport called Claudio’s?” he asked. “He was a Portuguese immigrant and worked on a fishing boat.”

When Mr. Boerum asked students if any of them were born in another country, a boy answered that he is from Guatemala.

“Wonderful,” Mr. Boerum replied. “I want to tell you about a person I know from Guatemala.”

He then told a story about a Guatemalan man who works at Burt’s Reliable in Southold and recently came to his house to fix his furnace.

“He spoke beautiful English and he wasn’t young, he was an older man,” Mr. Boerum said. “I asked him how he was able to learn English so quickly. He said ‘It’s because I go to night school to learn English and now I’m going to become an American citizen.’ ”

Some students asked Mr. Boerum, whose family emigrated from Holland in the late 1600s, what it was like for immigrant families living in Orient.

Many families came from Germany and Poland, he said, and most of them either farmed or fished for a living. Although learning English and becoming an American citizen were difficult tasks for most of them, Mr. Boerum said, those parents worked hard in order to provide a better life for their children.

“I think that’s the magic of this country,” he said.

Ms. Sorace, who used sign language her son translated for the class, also shared examples of the differences between living in America and Europe.

She said the question she enjoyed answering most was if she liked the milk here.

“Oh yes, the milk here tastes much better,” Ms. Sorace told the students. Her son then described how her family in France would have to boil their milk before consuming it.

School principal Francoise Wittenburg said the interactive program is both educational for students and beneficial for the community, because it helps preserve local history.

Teachers prepared students for the immigration learning experience by helping them craft questions for the guest speakers. They also videotaped each session to create a digital collection of oral histories, she said. Those videos will be part of the Oysterponds Historical Society’s summer exhibit on immigration.

“When kids can learn from primary sources — the person — it really engages them,” Ms. Wittenburg said.

Historical society director Ellen Cone Busch said her group is eager to continue working with the school on developing more history projects.

“In today’s world, if you don’t capture history digitally it could be gone in a heartbeat,” she said.

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