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Being a middle-school immigrant in Trump America

Noah poses with classmate Marie Lescouet. Both students are immigrants from other countries.

Photo Credit: Deirdre Roberts

Noah poses with classmate Marie Lescouet. Both students are immigrants from other countries.

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A New Start

The students pour into the large middle school composed of outdated bricks in the heart of Ridgewood, N.J. The school, with seafoam green doors and large stone fixtures in the front, is home to adolescents from grades six to eight. There’s a stone sign in front of the school engraved with the words “George Washington Middle School” propped up by bricks. The property is filled with lush green trees and bright green grass. Inside is a brown color scheme, and is very big. The hallways are lined with lockers, and iPad carts are visible.

This is what a day at George Washington Middle School is like. Now imagine it being the first day for a student from an entirely different country. That’s what is was like for Danish immigrant Noah Brinkmann. Brinkmann has lived in America as a resident for about eight months, but only in Ridgewood for six and a-half months.

On his first day of school, Brinkmann went to his homeroom class. The only thing was, he had his schoolbag, and no one else did. This was a foreign concept to Brinkmann, literally. In a make-or-break town like Ridgewood, what were the other students thinking that day in class when Noah walked in?

Marie Lescouet, a fellow immigrant and student from Morocco, said, “He seemed to be kind and happy all the time,” which was her first impression of Noah. Both students are in the same ESL class. In this classroom, the walls are coated in ivory white paint, and pipes run along the classroom. Small and bare, there is only a whiteboard on one of the walls- no projector. A few computers are in the back of the room, next to the teacher-coveted in-classroom bathroom. The desks are spaced out in uneven columns and rows that face the scarce whiteboard.

Another student in Noah’s class, Ted Bennett, said, “I just thought he was another kid.”

“I was really confused,” Brinkmann said on his first day at an American school.

That was kind of a confusing day, but then it got better because you got into the rhythm.”

— Noah Brinkmann

After the first class, the students went to open their assigned lockers. This was another first time experience for Brinkmann. They didn’t have lockers in Denmark, either. Another anomaly to Noah was that he had to call teachers by “Mrs.” and “Miss.” In Denmark, teachers are called by their first names.

Brinkmann said, “That was kind of a confusing day, but then it got better because you got into the rhythm.” Now, Noah says that he has friends and fits in, “But not like everybody else.” In addition, now Bennett has said, “I like having Noah in my class. He’s really funny and jokes a lot. He is also really talkative and laid back,” agreeing with Lescouet, who said that Noah and another student do a lot of funny things in class, too.

Compared to his school in Denmark, George Washington Middle School was much different.

“In Denmark, it’s kind of a small school and not separated out that much,” Brinkmann said.

Smaller than George Washington Middle School, this school looks very old and traditional: almost like a schoolhouse. The school is unlike George Washington Middle School, not only in terms of appearance, but by atmosphere, which is seemingly negative.

“I hated school, but I guess there’s not that many kids who enjoy it,” Brinkmann said. In Denmark, elementary and middle school was combined, and high school was separate. According to Brinkmann, school was also unfocused in Denmark, saying there’s “always breaks, people just ignoring teachers.” He also said they would never get on to any work, and many kids had difficulties. “It was just not fun anymore. It wasn’t really a challenge or anything,” Brinkmann said. “Over here it’s a lot more pressure on kids and I think it gives them a better education.”

His science teacher, Mrs. Kuiken, had a very positive attitude about Brinkmann. She said, “Noah is energetic but never rude or disrespectful. He seems to enjoy school and works very hard.”

On the playground and in the lunchroom, he enjoys playing and hanging around with friends, and is even more energetic and interactive, according to Kuiken.

“[His classmates] often lend him a hand and help him if he doesn’t understand something in class,” said Kuiken. “All of the kids seem to be helpful and kind to him.”

In addition, Kuiken even says Brinkmann seems to be happy at George Washington Middle School, even though it was difficult for him at first. 

“It takes some time to meet friends and determine where you fit in,” said Kuiken. “But now he is great! He has settled in with a nice group of friends and he is very comfortable and happy.”

Kuiken said the kids at George Washington Middle School are welcoming and lend him a hand. Although, she also said, “I know that the kids at his former school were not very nice to him.”

Seemingly, Brinkmann is having a positive time in the Ridgewood public school system. Kuiken said he is a terrific and hardworking young man. 

Photo Credit: Noah Brinkmann
Noah takes a selfie on his camera. This selfie was taken after his first day of school in America.

 

The Wall

Ever since the election of President Trump, tensions have been rising regarding immigration. Trump has put out a travel ban, which has been recently revised. Trump also proposes building a wall on the Mexican-American border to prevent illegal immigration.

Allison Floyd, the friend of an illegal immigrant, is sometimes nervous that her friend will be deported.

“I stay positive when I’m around them, careful not to give them more to worry about, and I continue to be hopeful, yet inside I am scared,” she said. Floyd has been friends with them for two years, but has just recently found out that her friend has immigrated illegally. She said that they didn’t make a big deal out of it, and that they just sat her down and told her. “I agree that we need stronger immigration policies in America, but I also think that not all illegal immigrants are bad.”

Floyd said that when their friend told them, she felt a lot of pressure to keep their secret.  “They trusted me enough to tell me this, and was sure I wouldn’t tell anyone, and I knew I couldn’t let them down.” She also said that she doesn’t treat her friend any different, and that she would never put aside their struggles just because they are an illegal immigrant.

“I’m sure they prefer to be treated no differently from anyone else,” she said.

On Trump, Brinkmann said, “I feel like… he’s the President and I hope he will do well.”

Brinkmann, who came to the United States pre-travel ban, may have had a different experience immigrating to the United States compared to people who have recently immigrated to the United States. According to the government, extreme vetting is going on regarding who is being allowed entrance into the United States.

Lescouet doesn’t like Trump and his policies on immigration.

Bennett also said, “He should find a less harsh way to deal with immigration and other topics.”

Noah had only been to the United States once before, so coming to the United States was like going to a whole new world. Denmark is now considered the second happiest country in the world, whereas the United States is No. 14 on the list. Brinkmann said, though, that it’s stressful in Denmark, and that “it feels like over here it’s more easy going and relaxed,” even though he thought it was going to be crazy in the United States. “It’s a very famous country all over the world so I thought that it would be high expectations all over the place,” Brinkmann said.

Photo Credit: Noah Brinkmann
Noah poses in front of the city skyline. The trip was to New York City.

Bennett said he would be nervous about how life would change being an immigrant because you have to learn a new language, get adjusted to the American school system, etc.

“I can only imagine how hard it is to adjust to the customs of America if you lived in a foreign country.” Bennett says that adapting from a life in Denmark to a life in the United States must have been hard for Noah.

Brinkmann said, when he came here, “It was kind of weird because in Europe you don’t really need these Visas.”

A Visa is a travel document that allows a person to come in and out of a country, and even stay there for a long period of time, that is issued by the country of origin. In America, we issue Visas to people who wish to become United States residents or citizens. Since the area Noah lives in an area where travel between countries in the European Union isn’t heavily regulated, he wasn’t familiar with the concept of Visas. Noah lived in Denmark, which is a part of the Schengen Area. The Schengen Area is a group of countries that have abolished their international borders, allowing for open movement of people, goods, etc. In this area, a Visa isn’t needed unless you visit from any of the following countries outside of the European Union. So, in short, since Noah had never been exposed to the idea of Visas, it was a foreign concept for him.

“It was really weird,” he said.

The flight from Denmark to America was “the best part of coming here” according to Brinkmann. Calm and peaceful aren’t necessarily the default terms you would think someone would use to describe immigrating to a new country- but seemingly, for Brinkmann, the experience wasn’t too bad.

“It took a very long time when we landed to get out, but the flight here was actually kind of nice,” Brinkmann said.

Noah’s father had already been in the country for two months, looking at houses and getting familiar with the country. Since the family had already booked a hotel, they travelled to the hotel and stayed there for three weeks. Then, they moved to another hotel for another week.

Although there are growing tensions about immigration issues due to President Donald Trump’s policies, Noah’s peers still seem accepting of him. Kuiken also said she didn’t sense any change of the student’s behavior towards him after the election of Trump. Bennett agreed, saying, “I haven’t seen anyone being mean, but I can imagine it would be hard if that happened.” This may be seen as a surprise, since many have argued that the amount of hate crimes in the United States has increased since the election of Donald Trump. The main targets of these hate crimes have been Jewish, black, LGBT+, and Muslim people. Experts have also said that post-election hate crimes were worse than post-9/11 hate crimes.

On the contrary to what Kuiken has said, though, there has been a discrepancy between Noah and one of his classmates, even though they are aware he is an immigrant.

“I got bullied in my English class because someone thought it was funny that I made grammar mistakes,” Brinkmann said, and classified this as the worst part about coming to the United States so far. This could have been because of a reminder to Noah of the treatment he got from peers in Denmark.

As far as the travel ban goes, Brinkmann expressed that he doesn’t feel comfortable when Trump talks about it.

“I hope he will change his mind about immigrants,” Brinkmann said.  

 

The American Dream

Noah has a very positive attitude about the United States, even though after high school, he plans on going back to Denmark. So far, he said the best part about being here has been seeing New York City. Noah went to Rockefeller Center, a square in New York City with an ice rink and an infamous Christmas tree during the winter, to visit his mom’s cousin.

“That was a pretty good experience,” Brinkmann said. “I haven’t seen him for a year and it was kind of nice.”

In addition to that, though, Noah has expressed that another great part about coming here was seeing culture in the United States. In fact, Noah seems to enjoy experiencing American culture. In his free time, Noah said, “I like to relax with my family.” Noah doesn’t have any other family over here, besides his mom, dad, two sisters, and dog.

Bennett said he would assume Noah prefers life in America over Denmark, due to what he has told him. Bennett also said though, “I would assume that he misses Denmark in some ways. I think Noah adapted to the changes much better than I would have.”

I would assume that he misses Denmark in some ways. I think Noah adapted to the changes much better than I would have.”

— Ted Bennett

“I have always seen movies about it,” Brinkmann said. “I think it’s different from where I come from, but I think it’s nice here.”

On the other hand, though, Lescouet says she would not recommend for an immigrant to settle in Ridgewood. Although, she believes the schools are great.

Brinkmann said, “I would definitely recommend it,” in reference to recommending that an immigrant move to Ridgewood. Brinkmann said that there’s good schools, good restaurants, and it’s a good town. Bennett also said he would recommend for an immigrant to live in Ridgewood, and agrees that the English program is supposedly very good. Bennett has been living in Ridgewood for his entire life and has made lots of different friends there.

“It is very expensive,” Lescouet said in reference to life in Ridgewood. The main reason why she wouldn’t recommend Ridgewood is because for someone that is financially struggling, it would not be a good place to relocate to due to the cost of living. According to areavibes.com, the cost of living in Ridgewood is $179,000, compared to the national average of $100,000. In addition, the cost of housing is 239 percent higher than the national average in Ridgewood.

Noah has said that if he is by his family, he likes the United States better than Denmark. Although, he has noticed that in the United States you need identification in a lot of places.

“Try to avoid crossing a line without a sort of ID,” Brinkmann said to incoming immigrants. Noah is not wrong either, though. In the United States recently, there has been much debate about whether allowing voters to be required to show photo identification before they vote or not. In the state of New Jersey, you only need to show identification (photo or non-photo) if you registered by mail and didn’t provide your ID number or a copy of your ID. In other states that have stricter voting laws, such as Mississippi, you must present photo identification to vote. Overall, it depends by states whether or not you need to present photo identification or at least some form of identification to vote by state. In only a few other countries voter ID laws are strictly enforced.

“You need ID all over the place,” Brinkmann said. This observation could also be attributed to the drinking laws in not only Denmark, but most European countries. In the United States, the legal alcohol consumption age is 21 (except in Louisiana where a parent/guardian can purchase alcohol for their underage child). In Denmark, you have to be 16 to purchase alcohol in a shop but 18 in a bar or restaurant and/or if you want to purchase alcohol with an alcohol by volume (ABV) higher than 16.5 percent.

 

Old Times, New Times

Now, Bennett says Noah has made a lot of progress. At first, Bennett said Noah couldn’t communicate too well with others. Now, he said, “As he started to pick up more English, he made a lot of friends.”

Floyd said, “You hear about the struggles and issues that illegal immigrants face on TV, but when you have a relationship with one, the problems are much more real and upfront.” Although Noah doesn’t have a terrible life, and he is a legal immigrant, there is still a  struggle of being an immigrant in America. You have to learn a new language, move into a completely new area in a different country, adapt to a foreign culture, etc. In addition, anti-immigration groups are still advocating and growing, and almost everyday hate crimes are occurring not only against immigrants, but other minority groups. Floyd wishes there was a way to determine which illegal immigrants were “good”, and “bad” to prevent an onslaught of unnecessary punishment. “Except at this point there isn’t much to decide if someone is “good” or “bad”,” she said.

Lescouet said that she understands the struggles of immigrants, because she is one herself. Specifically, she talked about how it’s hard for immigrants to adapt to American culture. She used the example of greeting others- in France, you kiss a person on the cheek to greet them. In America, you shake hands. Envision yourself going to a country in Europe that practices this custom (such as France) and everyone scrutinizing you for trying to shake hands instead of kissing them on the cheek. Helping people transition into a new culture by being kind and gracious is essential to promoting immigration to the United States, which introduces and spreads new cultures in the United States. It also is essential to maintaining healthy relationships with other countries.

Bennett also said that Noah is hard-working, smart, and helpful. He said, “He wouldn’t deserve anyone bullying him for such preposterous things,” in reference to Noah being an immigrant. Bennett sees Trump as too extreme, and has expressed that he can’t imagine the struggles of being an immigrant and moving to a foreign country. Bennett has been living a cozy life in upper echelon suburbia his whole life, so the thought has never really crossed his mind.

Kuiken is impressed by Noah’s fluency, as there are a lot of new vocabulary in science. In addition, she expressed she was also impressed by an oral presentation he did in class, saying he did “a terrific job.” Kuiken has also said that Noah has improved his English-speaking skills a lot. “Noah works very hard to learn and comprehend all of the new words.”

Photo Credit: Chloe Siohan
Noah works hard in class. Noah’s favorite class at George Washington Middle School is P.E.

Brinkmann said, compared to Denmark, “I would say the way people behave over here [in the United States] is a little different.” He said that in Denmark you would just ignore people, but in the United States, people are more caring.

Now, picture that your parents just told you that you are moving to a new country in Europe, South America, or any unfamiliar place to you. What would you feel? Anxiousness, happiness, relief?

When Noah first found out he was leaving Denmark, he said he felt a mixture of feelings and emotions. First, he felt sad because he was going to miss his home and family, then excited to leave the country, and finally sad again when it was time to leave. “I got kind of excited because it’s like ‘Yay, I get to get out of the country!’ but then when I had to leave, I really just felt like ‘I don’t want to do this.” . Now, after being in the country for almost a year, Noah said he feels alright.

Overall, Noah feels that life in America is positive. Although he thinks school is hard, (George Washington Middle School is rated the No. 9 middle school in New Jersey by Niche), he said that it is an easy going country, the people here are caring, and that he enjoys experiencing American culture. “Everybody [in the United States] is very friendly and kind.”

Since moving to Ridgewood, Noah has gotten a better, more focused education, made new friends, and managed to resist the current heated political climate in America at the moment, and even had an enjoyable journey to the country. Noah is a young, thriving American resident who doesn’t focus on the potential struggles of being an immigrant, but instead lives in the moment. Kuiken said, “I am sure that he will find much success in his future.”

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Since 1956
Being a middle-school immigrant in Trump America