As DREAM Fades, a D.C. Nonprofit Gives Kids Hope—and Help

As DREAM Fades, a D.C. Nonprofit Gives Kids Hope—and Help

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—As the DREAM Act hangs in limbo in the U.S. Senate, a program on the other side of the capital is providing college scholarships to immigrant students regardless of their status.

At a benefit this week for the Esperanza Education Fund, an all-volunteer group without an office or street address that has awarded 18 scholarships to immigrants in D.C., Maryland and Virginia since 2009, there was no talk of the DREAM Act, or its slim chances of passage.

Instead, the night was about improvised roads to American life—and education against the odds.

“Flamenco is an improvised art," said Grigory “Grisha” Goryachev, a Russian flamenco guitar master, before launching into a set of songs in the stately hall of the Carnegie Institute.

Goryachev, now 33, was a child prodigy who debuted his guitar on the Moscow stages at age 9 but was denied entry into the elite music conservatories of the Soviet Union because flamenco was deemed “too alien” a style. He was later admitted to the U.S. on an "extraordinary ability" visa in 1997, and completed his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Flamenco is the music of the wanderer, the traveler, the nation-less in search of a nation. Born in 16th-century Spain, it was the defiant child of four cultures: the Moor, the Andalusian, the Jew and the Gypsy.

Listening raptly in the crowd of 200 was Felipe Hernandez, 24, who recently received a scholarship from Esperanza to study at Northern Virginia Community College. He was at the top of his senior class in his native Colombia when he came to Virginia to join his father, who had been badly injured at a construction site and was unable to support the family. Felipe got a job as a dishwasher, cook, and eventually kitchen manager, at a restaurant in Centreville. He enrolled at an alternative high school, and began studying information technology and air conditioning.

His eventual goal—a degree in mechanical engineering—could take six years. “I don’t care how long it takes,” he said. “I just want to study.” He works full-time on weekdays hanging dry wall; on weekends, he sells cell phones at a retail store Classes are at night.

Esperanza’s $5,000 or $10,000 awards are designed to make a dent in the many obligations immigrant students face so that they are able to study.

“Many of these students don't have time to build up their extracurricular resumes because they’re working 50 hours per week in the family restaurant," said Alvaro Bedoya, 28, one of Esperanza's co-founders.

Esperanza was established by a group of young D.C. professionals who recognized the role that education played in their own lives. Many are the sons and daughters of immigrants, all are volunteers, and they leverage their vast professional networks—raising more than $125,000 in two years— to fund immigrant students in GED programs, alternative high schools, and other places of transition.

“I never had to work growing up because my parents, who are immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, made sacrifices that allowed me great opportunities to study,” said Alexander Lin, 29, the Esperanza Fund’s board secretary. “They created a home environment where studying was everything. I could stay at home, I could be in the marching band.”

So far, scholarships have been awarded to students from El Salvador, Guinea, Bolivia, Honduras, Vietnam, China, Mexico, and India as well as Colombia.

As the benefit ended, Goryachev paid tribute to his Spanish influences. "Nobody else plays them in concert anymore," he said, referring to the songs of flamenco legends Mario Escudero, Ernesto Lecuona, and Paco de Lucia, whom he listened to as a boy. "That's why I play them, because I want the music to be alive."

It wasn’t clear, as Goryachev struck chords and melodies in deep concentration, whether he was playing flamenco or the flamenco played him. His guitar spoke Russian, Spanish, Californian. The boy from St. Petersburg who now lives in San Jose was playing a style stolen from Spain and refined in Boston—a moveable feast of culture.

For the finale, he played “Cepe Adaluza— Bulerias,” by de Lucia—a fitting choice. De Lucia was his childhood idol and eventually recommended him for the visa that allowed him to study in the U.S. Today he is recognized as one of the few musicians in the world to have mastered both the flamenco and the classical guitar.

"It was my family's tradition to get a good education,” Goryachev said after the performance, surrounded by students. “So… I came here.”

For more information on the Esperanza Education Fund, and to watch a clip of Goryachev's flamenco guitar, visit www.esperanzafund.org/grisha

Photograph: Mauricio Cuevas from EventosVIPpass.com