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Native of India makes everyone feel welcome

NIAGARA FALLS – Imagine a person coming to America from India, confused and lonely, unable to speak a very different language. Imagine that person is a child.

In the Niagara Falls School District and some nearby districts, the journey is a little less lonely thanks to visits from Anupama Chandan, 54, of Lewiston. Chandan, a native of India, has volunteered her time for more than 20 years to transition newcomers at G.J. Mann (and previously at Abate Elementary School) by speaking to them in her native Punjabi, as well as in Hindi and Urdu, while they learn English.

Chandan was honored last week with the Niagara Falls district’s highest award – the Golden Apple – for volunteering her time at least twice a week in the district’s new language program.

Chandan understands a bit of what these young people and, in some cases, their parents face. She was 25 years old when she came to America in 1987 with her husband, Dr. Komal Chandan, a family practitioner in Niagara Falls. The couple, whose marriage was arranged by their families, had a 15-month-old child when they moved from New Delhi, the capital of India, to Minnesota for his residency.

“The biggest change is that we came from New Delhi to Minnesota in early January. Oh, my God, I never imagined how cold it could be,” she said.

Fortunately, Chandan spoke English, but everything else was new.

She and her husband now have three grown children.

What was it like when you moved here?

I had a brother who was already in the states so I did want to come here. But it’s a very different experience when you come from an Eastern country and come to the West. The whole way of thinking is different.

But other than the cold, it is also a different way of life, isn’t it?

A different way. A different culture. You left your family behind. It was very difficult. But we came with an open mind. When you are young, you don’t realize how hard it is going to be. Once you are in a new place, you have to make it go.

What else was a culture shock for you?

It is a very different way of life in America. We come from a culture that is very closely knit with family and friends. Everybody is in everybody’s business Being in a place where there is independence and you could do what you want was very different for us.

An arranged marriage is a very foreign concept in this country.

It is a very different concept, but it seems to work.

You said you were able to speak English, unlike some of the students you meet.

Fortunately all of my education was in the English medium when I was in school and college, so that was not an issue when I came here.

What is your educational background?

I have a master’s in developmental psychology, which I got in India. I did work there for awhile before I got married. I worked in special education because at that time special education was a new field in India. I worked with the integration of mentally handicapped and children with special needs into normal schools.

Did you do that when you moved here?

I took a few courses, but I did not pursue it any farther because I had a little baby with me. When she was a baby, I worked in day care. When she went to preschool, I worked in a preschool. Then she went to grade school and I worked as a kindergarten teacher. When I had another child, I worked in special education while we lived in Kansas City, Mo. I worked a lot until we moved to Lewiston. That was the first time I did not work full-time.

When did your family move to the area?

We came here in 1992.

How did you get involved as a volunteer in the Niagara Falls School District?

That was also a coincidence. One of my neighbors had a friend in church who was a preschooler at Harry F. Abate (Elementary School). She asked me if I knew Punjabi because they were getting new children in kindergarten who did not know a word of English. I just went in to help a couple of times and found there was a great need and started volunteering my time a couple of times a week as they needed me. That was in 1995.

Are there a large number of students coming to the area from India?

Actually, there are a lot of cab drivers in the Niagara Falls area from India or Pakistan, so we had a lot of families who lived close to the school. Also, Niagara Falls is close to Canada, which has a big Indian and Pakistani population. Sometimes they move here because housing is cheaper and their friends and family follow. Also, New York State has a rule that if you have been in this country less than two years, you have to get a translator (for testing). I started translating for the Regents exam as the need grew. I’ve done this in Niagara Falls and Grand Island and all over. Now that I am in the system.

When you came here you were an adult, but how is it for a child when they move here?

If you don’t come from a big city then you don’t have much exposure to English. Settling into a new culture is hard enough and if language is a barrier, it’s even harder to fit in. I thought that now that I have the time I could give it to these children. I really enjoy working with these children in my own language. My children don’t speak much Punjabi. Languages like Italian, Spanish are similar in the script. They have a Latin base, but Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu are totally Eastern languages. They have nothing in common with the Western languages. It’s a very difficult process for them. And they have no support at home if their parents don’t speak English.

Have you seen some of the kids you started with grow into adults?

I started in 1995 and in 1996 or ’97, there was one child in Grand Island. He was from Pakistan. He did not speak at all. So I went there for about four months, two times a week, constantly. The other day I met him at his high school in Grand Island and he is going to UB this year. I was so proud of him. He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him when the teacher called out his name. Kids are so smart, they have so much potential. If language is the only barrier keeping them from moving forward, we need to help them.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.