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Immigrants learn English, find family by sharing "Fork Tales"

A play put on by students learning English breaks down barriers while building friendships.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — There’s Dominica Vitale who immigrated to the United States 15 years ago from Sicily. 

"I didn’t go to an American school. I went to an Italian school. So sometimes I have problems with the grammar. Espcially with the pronunciations," she confided. 

"School is totally different. Especially in South Italy, it's not very good." she said. 

She and her husband came here to give their two young children a better education. Having poured her heart and soul into raising her kids and building the family restaurant, Salvatores by Papa Reno in downtown Muscatine, there was never any time to focus on herself.

Her daughter is now working as a nurse in Iowa City, her son a junior studying biological engineering in the same city, so she decided to go back to school as an ELA student. 

In Fork Tales, she shares memories of eating Sunday dinner with her mother in their native Palermo, the capital of Sicily. 

"She always cooks the same thing, spaghetti with meat sauce, and Milanese meat." 

And there was lots of espresso. 

"We drink espresso all day," she said. "It's kind of an excuse to stay together and talk with family and friends."

"It's a different way of teaching English in a sense," said Riley Smock. Fork Tales was weaved out of the memories and experiences of her students and then written into a play by Mary Swander, Iowa's own poet laureate. 

"The other wonderful thing is we have seen some of our shier students really come out of their shell and speaking and telling their stories and practicing their English," Riley Smock said.

Vitale said learning English has helped her build relations with so many others. Her classmates and teachers have become family.

"I found more friends. We’re like family now because we know each other, we laugh a lot," Vitale said. "I feel more secure. I’m very happy."

She and her classmates will be performing Fork Tales at Grinnel College this Saturday. 

Vitale said she would continue taking ELA classes to improve her language skills. The ELA classes are offered free of charge at all Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.