By Matt White | PHOTOgraphy BY Beth Mann
Soon after arriving in Siler City in 1991, Ilana Dubester found herself in line at a pharmacy behind an Hispanic woman who was holding a crying baby and stretching her limited English with the pharmacist.
“Being a nosy person, I butted in,” says Ilana, who speaks Spanish, though not because she grew up in South America. Born and raised in Brazil, she spoke only Portuguese until she picked up Spanish working on a kibbutz in Israel. The woman in line didn’t know any of that, of course, but with a few questions and kind words, Ilana helped her buy a thermometer and medicine for her baby’s fever.
In some sense, Ilana has been repeating that episode for 25 years – “butting in” to bridge the gaps between Chatham’s Spanish- and English-speaking communities. In 1995, Ilana opened El Vínculo Hispano, or the Hispanic Liaison, as a county agency to translate documents and arrange services for Chatham’s Spanish-speaking community, which is heavily immigrant. By 1997, El Vínculo was an independent nonprofit.
“We are the Google of the Hispanic community,” Ilana says. “We answer any and every kind of question, from education to housing to taxes to immigration laws.” In late 2016, Johnson’s Mobile Home Park in Siler City was sold to Mountaire Farms, a chicken processor that planned a major factory on the site. The deal was a boon for Siler City and was backed by county tax breaks. But the 28 mostly Spanish-speaking
families living at the park faced eviction. Most owned their homes but the old trailers were too modified or deteriorated to move. On average, Ilana found, families had invested more than $10,000 in their homes, and faced losing all of it.
“For her it was a call to arms,” says Diana Hales, theChatham Board of County Commissioners’ vice chairwoman. “She’s definitely not only a great leader, but she also has an enormous heart.”
In a quickly assembled meeting at Peppercorn restaurant, Ilana told residents, “We have no idea if we can win. The only thing we have is the power of the people.”
Ilana rallied residents to a Commissioners meeting at the Chatham County Courthouse where they rose one at a time to tell their stories. Retired couples said they had no savings to start over, while young mothers described working three jobs to stay afloat. English-speaking children – some wearing clothes bearing the name of Chatham schools – translated for parents.
“It’s one thing to know the numbers,” Diana says. “It’s another to see the people behind the numbers.”
Within a week, Mountaire increased its offer to $8,300 in cash and waived rent collection as residents focused on moving.
“It was enough for people to move into their next phase,” Ilana says.
Read the original article from the April/May 2019 Issue: