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Freedom: Not just another word 

Inside the Reef By Joyce McClure

 The issue of the southern border continues to garner above-the-fold news on the mainland while nationals from China and other intolerant, undemocratic regimes continue to hire local boat owners to ferry them into Guam, the CNMI, the FSM and other islands in the region by dark of night.

With a certificate from The New School in New York City, I am teaching English as a Foreign Language in my new home here on the mainland. My students immigrated from Congo, El Salvador, Columbia, Russia, Nepal and Tibet. Among them is a nurse, an accountant, a former restaurant owner and a sushi chef. They are now working as housekeeping staff at the University of Virginia, pushing carts loaded with cleaning supplies as they tend to the bathrooms, classrooms, trash and hallways in the large buildings scattered all over the university grounds.

Several spent years in refugee camps before getting entry visas to the U.S., family members still live in camps in Rwanda and Nepal. One walked across the Himalayan mountains in deep snow from Tibet to Nepal to escape persecution. Another escaped to India, leaving family behind in Tibet. If they return to Tibet to visit, their families will be ostracized and punished.


One Congolese man spent 15 years in a refugee camp in Rwanda where the first four of his five children were born. Twelve of his siblings were killed in the genocide in Congo. He worked in construction and finally received a visa thanks to the United Nations office in the camp. He now works from 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week, goes home to shower and eat dinner, then drives for Uber until 10 p.m. or later.      

Weekends are spent driving for Uber, too. His wife is soon to give birth to their sixth child. Their oldest child, a girl, is enrolled at the local community college working toward a career in medicine. For now, like his colleagues, he is not just working for minimum wage, but also for the benefits of healthcare, paid vacations and the education allowance given to employees of the university, including the English lessons that I’m teaching. He is also working to support his children’s dreams.

And he is now using our weekly lessons to study for the citizenship exam. He never received a formal education when he was growing up and tending to his father’s herd of cows. His father’s animals and extensive land were confiscated during the civil war. Challenged yet determined to learn English, his dream is to become a truck driver.

When asked why he wanted to come to America, my eyes filled with tears when he replied with one word – “freedom.”

Another of my students from Columbia is against allowing illegal aliens across the border. She applied for and got a visa; why don’t they? she says when we discuss it during her lesson. She is right. I have no argument. But the stories of the immigrants, legal and not, are breathtaking.

On the other side of the coin, the FSM has struggled for years with the out-migration of young people in search of a better education and jobs that pay a livable wage. With the recent vote to allow dual citizenship, many of them will now be able to take advantage of certain rights, including voting, enjoyed by citizens of the U.S. while also maintaining a link to their ancestral home.

But both sides – the migrants to the U.S. and those who remain on the FSM islands – complain about the lack of opportunity that prevents those who leave from moving back after graduating from college. The thing is, the leaders have failed to come up with solutions like those in the U.S. Congress who complain about the border crisis but refuse to approve a bi-partisan solution. Instead, they paint the immigrants as the lowest of the low – rapists, criminals, drug dealers, you-name-it.

My experience teaching English to immigrants is just the opposite. Granted, they came with visas in hand, but they are no different than those who are risking everything to escape the civil and drug wars, poverty and hardships in their countries.

I am in awe of their perseverance, hope and willingness to take whatever job they can to ensure their family’s future in a country where freedom is not just another word. It’s the cornerstone.

Joyce McClure is a former senior marketing executive and former Peace Corps volunteer in Yap. Transitioning to freelance writing, she moved to Guam in 2021 and recently relocated back to the mainland. Send feedback to 


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