Community Connections: ‘Mama Africa’ more than continent; she is neighbor |

Community Connections: ‘Mama Africa’ more than continent; she is neighbor

Roddy Beall/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

The mission of Integrated Community is to proactively promote and support successful integration of immigrant and local community members in Northwest Colorado through education, intercultural exchange and collaboration to build a more united community in which its members can communicate, participate and contribute.

In 1956, when Judith Lehel was 17, she escaped Soviet-controlled Hungary under the cover of darkness. She left alone, fleeing a world where boiled potatoes were a delicacy.

"I don't even like to think about my childhood," she said. "We ate kidney beans every day. It's all we had. We lived in an underground shelter, while the Russian tanks shelled the buildings. The houses were blown open like dollhouses. As a child, no one should see the things I saw."

After living one year in a refugee camp in France, she got an apartment, started school, paid her bills and cooked her own food. All of this at age 17.

The details of Judith's daring escape are awe-inspiring, and her life's many feats are too much for the humble confines of this article or this writer's meager talent. I hope she fulfills her promise to write an autobiography; she could chronicle her life in Western Europe, Africa, Israel and what brought her to Steamboat Springs. Ultimately, her path led her to become an interpreter with Integrated Community.

"I interpret for Integrated Community, because I didn't want to retire," Judith said, "but mostly, because I respect the African men whom I serve."

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And those men, who palpably miss their homeland, love her like family. They call her "Mama Africa."

The irony of her nickname is that it describes neither her place of origin nor her ethnicity. It speaks to a deeper kinship, borne of a shared struggle. She is like family, because "home" is a feeling, not a place. Judith and these men she works with, as well as so many other immigrants in Steamboat, were persecuted in their homelands. They were driven away by forces of darkness, and they found refuge in this beautiful and welcoming country.

Integrated Community currently has 27 language interpreters. Twenty-three are immigrants. Each of these talented people has a remarkable story of how he or she arrived in Steamboat. They are all stories of loss and sadness, because leaving one's homeland is, in itself, a huge blow. But they are also stories of hope and perseverance, most of them guided by the light of Lady Liberty's torch.

"The American Dream means that, in this country, you can be a better person," said Steamboat Springs High School junior Maria Santiago, who recently presented about Immigration for the Peace and Justice Symposium. "You have the opportunity to bring yourself forward, bring your family forward and bring the nation forward."

Serena is an example of a new generation of Americans, who maintain knowledge of their parents' native language because they realize that being bilingual will help them land good jobs in our increasingly globalized world. Serena is not yet trained as an interpreter, but she has the skills necessary to join a courageous fraternity of interpreters, including Judith Lehel, who work to bridge the linguistic and cultural barriers that divide us.

Our diversity is our strength. Our humility is our glue. Our willingness to love and respect those different from us shows our children and grandchildren that we will love them for whomever they are, and whomever they love. We are defined by our hope, not our fears.

Roddy Beall is a Spanish interpreter at Integrated Community, a soccer coach and a dancer. His favorite bird it the American kestrel.