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By Esther J. Cepeda

NAME: Sil Ganzo

AGE: 33

HERITAGE: Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina

HOMETOWN: Charlotte, NC

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Education and cultural advocate

Sil Ganzo is currently the Executive Director of ourBRIDGE, a Charlotte, North Carolina organization providing safe and fun after-school academic support, at no cost, to refugee and immigrant students and their families.

How did you end up in Charlotte?

I wanted to travel the world to help people, and cultures have always been a fascination to me. When I came to the U.S. I wasn’t planning on staying, I came to work for a year but then I found my husband here, fell in love with the city and made my home here.

Did you have any training to prepare you for the immense responsibility of becoming the leader of an organization that is literally a lifeline for new immigrant families?

Before I came here I was 20 and going to college in Argentina. Going back to college has been in the back of my mind but I’m at peace with not having a specific credential. At first I had to tell myself, “I can do this,' - it takes guts – I do what feels right at the moment and when I see something wrong I make it right.

You started as an assistant but very quickly ended up running the whole show. What was that like?

When I was hired, it was a for-profit company with an afterschool program for refugee students. I learned everything about how to run the afterschool program, then the administrative work. I learned how to communicate with someone when they didn’t speak English and I did it in part by becoming part of the families’ culture, festivals, and birthday parties. By the second year, they offered me the director position and I took it because it felt right. Two years later the owners decided they were going to close the whole thing and by then I was 100 percent in and I couldn’t let that happen. The kids and families needed the academic support and a place to be loud and funny and be loved – they needed that outlet.

I took over with help of many, many volunteers, community partners and family members and transformed it to a nonprofit in 2013.

It must have been a challenge to serve families from such a diverse range of countries, experiences and immigration statuses.

At the time I wasn’t aware of the number of refugees coming to Charlotte and when I started, I was an immigrant myself. I was surprised by the number of refugees who had settled here and in talking to several faith-based organizations and other nonprofits interested in helping these families it became clear that there was a huge need for services. Each community is different, of course, but one thing tends to be true: if you don’t go to them, they won’t come asking for help.

Once you are able to engage families, what do the kids get out of being at ourBRIDGE?

To me, it’s being in a place where they can be themselves while learning how to deal with their new surroundings – it’s so much more than just learning to speak English. For instance, when the kids get here there are a lot of social expectations they simply know nothing about. They don’t know to raise their hand to speak. Nepali students, like many others, are taught not to look at adults in the eye as a sign of respect. They are taught to look down when speaking to an authority figure or any adult but here it’s, “Look at me, I’m talking to you.”

And the staff learns from the kids too. We went to the zoo one day and one of the students said to us, “Why are you so excited? Where I come from elephants are everywhere!” They’ll tell you about the huts they lived in, they’ll tell you about remembering an uncle being killed because someone was trying to drag them out of their hut.

These stories really break your heart and shows how resilient these kids are. No one should go through this kind of trauma, much less children. We had a girl from El Salvador who crossed the border alone to meet up with her parents, her uncle sent her by herself – she was eight years old. Then she was put in school all day where she doesn’t know what they’re talking about – she needs so much more than just instruction on learning how to read.

What has changed since you arrived?

I think the refugees are feeling that they’re more a part of the community, feeling more confident in organizing themselves. Whether we’re talking about those from Nepal or Butan and other countries, it’s amazing to watch as the children we met six years ago as new arrivals are now going to college and becoming amazing leaders in their own right. They take their educations back to their communities and now that they speak English and understand the culture they can advocate, they are leading.

What keeps you and your staff going?

Part of it is that the community here is so welcoming, that’s such a big help. The other is the desire to be a place where these kids can find opportunities to have a happy life. We’re all good at something and we don’t want these kids aging out of the school system not knowing that they are brave and capable of doing amazing things.

They need help in finding something they’re good at and feeling good about themselves so that they understand that whatever they’ve been through, they are going to do well. If they can see this Argentinian woman who can’t speak English perfectly doing well, I think they’ll be able to see that it doesn’t matter if you have an accent or look different or not born here, they are capable and smart and can do whatever they want to do.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda

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