Welcome wagon: For 40 years, Amherst women's group has embraced newcomers from afar

Saturday, March 29, 2014
The eggs were the stars.

It seemed everybody gathered for an old-fashioned Yankee Swap at the First Baptist Church in Amherst one recent morning wanted the dozen brought by Janet Brongers from her backyard chicken coop.

Xianoyan Wang had them first. She opened the brightly wrapped carton she plucked from a pile of presents in the center of the room and could hardly contain her excitement as she showed them off to the women sitting in a circle on folding chairs.

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“You raise the chickens yourself,” she said, finally taking her seat next to Brongers. “Very fresh.”

Barely a few minutes passed, though, and there was Sandy Anderson taking the box out of Wang’s hands.

Laughter filled the air as a look of shock came over Wang’s face. “Why?” she asked plaintively.

The rules of the game, often a Christmas tradition where stealing gifts is part of the fun, had been carefully explained to the women — most of whom were visitors from countries across the world: China, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, Colombia, Bolivia, Moldova ... But it was still confusing. “What if I don’t agree?” Wang asked watching Anderson carry the eggs away.

Others, in the crowd, like Anderson, were from local communities, hoping to make the foreign women feel welcomed. The newcomers were wives of scholars or graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, or researchers themselves, temporarily at UMass. A few were not connected to UMass at all, but participants in area English language programs. They belong to a group called Round the World Women and they range in age from late 20s to 70s, with the volunteers stretching into the older age group. About 60 were at the Yankee swap with at least 10 infants and toddlers in tow.

Brongers told Wang she could choose another gift. “I prefer the eggs,” she said, selecting a package that turned out to be a jar of vitamins.

Making friends

Run with the help of the International Programs office at UMass and sponsored by the nonprofit Amherst Town Committee for International Students, Inc., the organization formed 40 years ago to ease the isolation among women who arrive here knowing no one, without drivers’ licenses and not eligible to work. Usually they live here from six months to three years. The group offers weekly activities during the academic year from visiting Old Sturbridge Village to an ethnic lunch at someone’s home. Local volunteers provide rides to the events.

“They get a feel for what’s available to do in the area and it helps them get to know people,” said Nancy Condon, UMass international programs liaison. The gatherings also give them a better grasp of American culture, a place for new mothers to connect and a chance to practice their English.

It was the shocking suicides of two foreign students’ wives, who had been living in university family housing, that got the group going. The deaths were unconnected, but despair brought on by loneliness and isolation was a common denominator, said Condon. Organizers Eleanor Singleton and Peggy Gage approached Barbara Burn — then-director of the international office — to get the names of women they could reach out to.

Now with the greater likelihood that the women speak English — and with Internet and telephone connections keeping them in touch with family and friends back home — circumstances are different. But the offer of friendships is still warmly embraced by the participants.

“They had such a big impact on my life when I first got here,” said Herlinda Landers, 32, of Hadley, who came from Colombia eight years ago when she married Tim Landers, a glassblower at UMass. Barely able to speak English then, she is now a board member and volunteer who helps the newcomers. A student in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, she homeschools her 5-year-old son, David, who was with her at the gathering. “I know the struggles,” Landers said. “It’s fun to get out of the house and hang out with other women when your husband is away all day.”

Wang, 50, a visiting scholar in the UMass department of food science, arrived here from China in late January and moved into The Boulders apartments in Amherst where she expects to stay until August. By the Yankee Swap, she had already attended three gatherings. Her husband and 21-year-old son are coming to visit in June.

“I need to know the American culture,” she said — even if it does include robbery of those precious eggs. “I need to know the Amherst environment and I can practice my English. All are very kind.”

Cultural exchange

As the women continued to take presents, oohing and ahhing at items, many crafted by the participants, the eggs made their way from person to person, spurring laughter each time they were snatched from someone’s hands.

“I lost the eggs, but look, I got a nice scarf,” Condon said, as she opened her replacement gift.

Liza Dolidze, 39, from the country Georgia, was holding a Japanese friend’s baby son, while his mother took her turn at the present table. Dolidze was eager to talk with me about the group. The mother of a 13-year old daughter, Irina Kokilashvili, who attends Amherst Regional Middle School, Dolidze is a Russian linguist who teaches in her homeland. Her husband, Lasha Kokilashvili, is in the doctoral program in the Center for International Education at UMass and the family has been here just over a year. Dolidze, who has been part of Round the World Women the whole time, said she enjoys meeting people from all over the world.

“This program is very helpful to us, to get to know each other better and learn how to live in the U.S.A.,” she said. “My English is terrible,” she added.

Actually, it was quite good, but when I told her so she shook her head in frustration. “I want to tell more nice things about the program.”

Exchanging bits of culture is one key benefit and the Yankee Swap gifts helped advance that. There was a big package of Korean snacks, a striking Japanese wall hanging of colorful fish, an intricate handmade Chinese red paper cutting in a lovely silver frame among other ethnic items.

Friendships transcend the group, Condon said, and some have maintained long connections.

Randa Nachbar, 57, of Amherst, who ferried three Chinese women to the swap, said she keeps contact via cards and emails with a woman from Korea she met through Round the World Women over a decade ago. “I love it,” she said. “It’s a great group.”

Volunteers — always welcome — commit one morning a week from September to May, said Condon. Activities begin at 10 and are finished by noon.

Sure enough, just at 12 p.m., the last of the gifts had been opened and the women started folding up the tables and chairs and packing up their children’s toys.

Wang had taken a photo of the elusive eggs with her phone. “All I have to take home is the picture,” she said. But she was smiling.

More information about Round the World Women is available by contacting executive committee chairwoman Gerry Harvey at 259-4404 or Nancy Condon at 545-2843.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.