Vol. 10, Issue 1, October 2009

Spotlight - The Sy Family
Donna Kelsh, Director
College of Mount Saint Vincent Institute for Immigrant Concerns

In Memoriam: Marcie Williams >>

ESOL class Institute for Immigrant Concerns

At the College of Mount Saint Vincent Institute for Immigrant Concerns, an adult English program for speakers of other languages (ESOL), we annually serve a diverse and dynamic immigrant population of 500 - including 120 refugees and political asylees from 24 countries in the past year alone. The Sys, an asylee family of twelve from Mauritania in Northwest Africa, demonstrate an inspiring story of survival and success.  

My introduction to the Sy family took place when I met Haby Sy (20), who was admitted to the United States as an asylee on January 25, 2008. Haby had never been to school and, according to her teacher, did not know how to pick up a pencil until mid January 2009, when she became a student in our special ESOL/Literacy class taught by Ann Churchill. Shortly after, Haby told me in her limited English that she wanted a job and then proudly showed me how she was practicing writing the letters of the alphabet. Against all odds, two and a half months later, Haby began working at Pretty Girl, Inc., on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn.

Haby Sy

Haby’s brother, Mamadou, (19), who had only been to school to study the Koran, began studying at the Institute in July 2008 and is also a student in the same class as his sister. Eight months ago, the Institute referred him to Agata & Valentina, the gourmet store on the Upper East Side and he was hired. A third sister, Mariame, (23), with one year of formal education, has also been a student, and is employed at Majik Cleaning Services. 

Mamdou Sy

I was so amazed by the strength of character and the motivation of Haby and Mamadou that I had to find out more about the Sy family. I arranged to meet with their father, Ismael. While in his taxi Ismael told me the story of his 1998 arrest and torture which were a consequence of his having talked to French and BBC journalists about the Mauritanian governments racial discrimination against the predominantly African population.  This event coincided with the annual Europe to Africa motorcycle race. When Ismael was released from prison, he fled to Senegal and then got a cleaning job on a Panamanian cargo ship. Literally, with only the shirt on his back, Ismael got off the ship in Miami in December 1999. After going to Ohio and then Illinois, he moved to New York City. In April 2005, he was granted political asylum.

Although Ismael was never formally educated, he speaks six languages fluently; Fulani, Wolof, Hasani, French, Spanish and English. Without an attorney, he successfully applied for political asylum for his seven children living in Mauritania. Three of his children arrived in New York in December 2007 and four arrived in January 2008. Three children were born in New York City.

In Memoriam


We are deeply saddened to share that our beloved Marcie Williams, Ph.D. candidate in TESOL, and a past NYS TESOL board member passed away last night after a long illness. Her sister Alicia sent the following message:

Celebration of Marcie!

This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine…
Let it shine,
Let it shine,
Let it shine.

When Marcie was little, she sang this in the school concert at the end of the year. It was the way she lived, letting her bright light shine on all of us her entire life. As of three o’clock this morning, under a clear star-filled sky, Marcie and her light are now shining down on us from somewhere above.

Marcie passed away on the morning of October 7, 2009.

From Miriam Eisenstein Ebsworth, Director of Doctoral Programs in Multilingual Multicultural Studies, New York University-

I was Marcie's advisor and dissertation chair. From the moment she came to us I was inspired by her optimism and dynamic attitude. She was always open to learning and growing. The courage with which she faced her illness and all of life's challenges was and will always be an inspiration.

From Dr. Frank Lixing Tang, Director of MMS Programs at New York University-

Marcie will remain in our hearts and minds as an ever optimistic and loving person. My best memory of Marcie is her smile and laughter.

From Dr. Gisella McSweeny, Adjunct Professor at NYU-

Marcie will be missed. She always invited my students to observe at Pace and they always came back with glowing reports.

From Dr. Tommy McDonell, Ph.D. in TESOL, Founder of Learning English Adult Program-

Marcie Williams smiled and everyone else did too. She wrote a grant to get books to start a reading club at Pace. She traveled the world, regardless of her breast cancer. She fought cancer yet never missed a day of teaching last year.  Her students and colleagues miss her every day...she always made people feel welcome.