As the City Turns

Educational ‘soaps’ and ‘sitcoms’
jointly produced by the Mayor’s Office
and the University help immigrants
grasp issues and benefits of New York life. . .

WHERE TO SEE “WE ARE NEW YORK” Full episodes may be
viewed at www.nyc.gov/LearnEnglish. The series airs on Channel 25
Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 a.m.; on Channel 74 Fridays
at 10 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m.; it’s also shown on Cablevision’s
Channel 22.

Fifty-year-old Sabah Hasweh left her native Jordan for New York City a dozen years ago. Nineteen-year-old Najada Xhemo of Albania has lived in the city for only two years.

They come from different countries and different generations, but they share the same dream: to improve their English so they can earn a college degree and fit into American life.

They — and the other 1.7-million immigrant adults in the city who don’t speak English fluently — are New York. And “We Are New York” is the new educational TV show produced by CUNY and the Mayor’s Office that is helping them meet their goals.

The nine-part, city-financed dramatic series, which has been praised by the Obama administration and national experts, was filmed in New York City neighborhoods with a cast that is reflective of the city’s immigration population. In addition to language lessons, it gives information on city services on a variety of everyday issues, including domestic violence, education, finances and health.

The series was created by Anthony Tassi, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Adult Education, and Leslee Oppenheim, University director of language and literacy programs.

“The city chose CUNY because Leslee is the best English-language instructor in the city,” Tassi says. “She had ideas for a TV show, and CUNY has the expertise in language learning and has a commitment to immigrants. The campuses are extremely welcoming to immigrants. It was a no-brainer to go with CUNY, and it worked out wonderfully.”

In “We Are New York,” immigrants help immigrants through a series of realistic plots that are as lively and sophisticated as those on TV soap operas and sitcoms. The dialogue is slowed slightly, and English subtitles make it easy for new learners.

“I wish I had seen this when I first came to New York,” says Hasweh, who is in the CUNY Language Immersion Program at The College of Staten Island. “It would have changed my life.”

Hasweh, who wants to go back to school to complete a major in early childhood education, says that in addition to improving her English skills, the show opened her eyes about a lot of city programs. “I watched ‘Asthma: The Soap Opera’ [shown in TV clip above] and didn’t know that the city offers free health insurance to poor children even if they don’t have green cards,” she says.

Xhemo, who enrolled in the CUNY Language Immersion Program at Queensborough Community College to study for the SATs, says the episode “Stay in School” was particularly helpful as she sets her sights on college. “This video is about my life; it’s about immigrant people and how they come here and start living,” she says. “I learned a lot. The schools here are a lot different from the ones I know.”

Hasweh and Xhemo are among the more fortunate of the city’s immigrants because they managed to get into an English-as-a-second-language class: There is only space and budget for some 75,000 students each year.

The CUNY Language Immersion Program attracts immigrants from a wide variety of countries, so not only don’t they speak English, but they also seldom speak each other’s languages. “We Are New York” puts them on common ground. “It has helped my students bond,” says Leila Boodhoo, who teaches 23 intermediate students at Queensborough Community College. “We have had healthy discussions about the topics because the issues are relevant to all their lives.”

The series was designed to reach far beyond the classroom. DVDs are being distributed to community organizations, and some 500 parent coordinators have been trained by the city’s department of education to use the material.

Moria Cappio, director of East Harlem Head Start, started an English-as-a-second language class for parents with a small grant from “We Are New York.” “Ninety-five percent of them are undocumented Mexican immigrants, and after they saw the video, they were saying, ‘That was me,’” she says. “They were all afraid of 311, and now they know they can use it anonymously and in their own language.”

The East Harlem group is encouraging other Head Starts in the city to develop workshops for using “We Are New York.”

La Union, a community-based organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, used the series to set the stage for an English-as-a-second-language/theater program that included immigrants’ playing roles based on the TV characters. “People really responded to it,” says Tasha Darbes, an intern in the program that was a collaboration between “We Are New York” and New York University. “They were excited because they could talk about things in their own life. When we saw the episode on domestic violence, one of the women shared her own story about being a victim.”

John Mogulescu, senior university dean for academic affairs and dean of the School of Professional Studies, says that “there’s nothing else like this in the country. It’s an amazing undertaking.”

Caryn Davis, a College of Staten Island CUNY Language Immersion Program instructor, is using the DVDs to train beginning students to do workshops for local community-based organizations that include Project Hospitality and El Centro de Hospitalidad.

“It’s a way to spread the word in a grassroots movement,” she says, adding that the workshops help her students hone their public-speaking skills, which will be beneficial when they go to college.

Students like Hasweh and Xhemo also are being encouraged to spread the word. Hasweh, for instance, is hoping to show the domestic violence episode to the women in her Brooklyn mosque.

Each CUNY campus is creating a plan to reach out to the community. For instance, the “We Are New York” episode on diabetes recently was screened in Washington Heights for the leaders of the Dominican community, and the no-smoking show was shown to the Russian community in Brighton Beach, where it was filmed.

“It’s a rich resource,” says Oppenheim. “We have gotten e-mails from around the world saying that it’s helpful to me as a student and a teacher. It’s very easy to imagine grad students in, say, sociology, or linguistics finding a dissertation topic in it.”

The biggest boost so far has come from the immigrant students who are telling their families and friends all about it. Xhemo, who speaks Greek in addition to her native Albanian, is planning to watch the series on TV with her parents. “We already discussed it, and they are very interested,” she says.