Saint Francis director credits ‘deep resiliency’ with immigrant success

July 2020 · 2020 World Refugee Day, Ministry News

Yeni Telles spoke no English – and as first-generation Mexican immigrant student at Los Angeles High School, no one cared. Assigned to “C Track,” few expected she’d accomplish much anyway, except maybe drop out of school, get married, and take a low-wage job to get by.

U.S.-born Track A and Chicano Track B students could take courses that prepared them for college and other educational opportunities. Students on Track C  barely knew other opportunities existed. One teacher, however, encouraged potential in his students. Yeni still remembers the day when he asked his class to share what their dream job would be, and she said she wanted to be a flight attendant.

“Flight attendant?” he said. “Why not be the pilot? The pilot drives the plane.”

That day, Yeni began to imagine a future beyond what she’d been told to accept.

Born in Mexico, Yeni crossed the border at age 10, journeying more than four days from Tecate to Los Angeles. She stayed two months before returning to Mexico to await her “green card,” which gave her status as a legal resident. Back in the States, she eventually enrolled at Los Angeles High School but became pregnant her senior year and dropped out. She refused, however, to let her situation define her.

Enrolling in the California Conservation Corps, Yeni worked full-time, attended school after work, and raised her young son. Working a minimum wage job while trying to survive in Los Angeles wasn’t easy – and every time she applied for a higher-paying job, she competed with at least a thousand other applicants. So, after finishing high school, Yeni picked up and moved to Wichita, Kansas. Culturally, it was a world away from L.A. She stepped off the Greyhound bus with her two-year-old son and one suitcase. And she still spoke minimal English.

Yeni got to work.

She learned English and enrolled in college, ultimately earning a master’s degree in social work from Wichita State University. In July, Yeni gave a speech at the 2020 Immigrant Heritage Scholarship awards ceremony, sponsored by Immigration Support Services Network. Brandon Whipple, mayor of Wichita, spoke at the same event. The Network asked Yeni to speak not because she’s an immigrant, but because she sat on the committee that decided the scholarship awards. She was on the committee because she now serves as Saint Francis Ministries’ director of International Ministries USA, which oversees Saint Francis Migration Ministries, a program that offers services to refugees and immigrants in Wichita.

“I admire immigrants who seek higher education, because it’s not easy,” says Yeni. “Most are the first in their family to attend college, and for their families, who are often struggling financially, college can seem a waste of time. They’re told they need to get a job instead and start working. Scholarships such as these serve as encouragement and validation that their dreams are valuable. Education is the means with which they begin to contribute to their new communities.”

The students who received scholarships came from Mexico, Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Brundi – six widely different contexts and cultures. Yet Yeni says they share much in common with each other and with her own story.

“Immigrants may differ in the way they arrived here, but they all share a deep resiliency. Because of my gender and origin, people discouraged me from bigger things. They laughed at my accent and expected me to be a maid or work as a laborer. I will always respect those immigrants who do those jobs because they work so much harder than I. But I have always dreamed of helping others, of being the kind of person I needed when I was going through those rough times.

“Immigrants bring important values and diversity to their adopted communities. And, though we remember our roots, we embrace and love our new country. If you ever run across an immigrant, please don’t judge them. Listen to their story. If you give yourself the opportunity, you’ll understand them and maybe gain a new perspective.”