Students in Mrs. Kristi Sines’ Sixth Grade Social Studies class, at Meyersdale Area Middle School, hosted a special guest on September 24th. Mr. John Smaila met with students to discuss his family’s immigration to the United States. Sines’ students recently completed a unit on immigration and citizenship.
“This is the second year that Mr. Smaila has shared his experiences with sixth graders. My goal for his presentation was for my students to understand how the process of naturalization occurs in a real life scenario,” explained Sines. “Another goal for his presentation is to spread cultural awareness. I wanted my students to have a first-hand account of immigration from a local Meyersdale citizen who has dedicated so much of his life to serving the community/country that he loves.”
Smaila is a retired Meyersdale High School teacher where he taught students for 33 years. Smaila shared the story of his family’ s immigration from Croatia to the United States.
His family traveled by ship from Genoa, Italy to New York City, Ellis Island, in 1955. The Smaila family arrived at Ellis Island in late 1955. He was just eight years old and spoke no English.
“We spent 11 days on the shop and my mother and little brother spent 11 days in the ship’s hospital sick, and I spent eight days sick. Now, my father, he was fine, he never missed a meal,” Smaila said with a chuckle. “It was November and as you might imagine the ocean was very rough.”
Smaila said his family chose to leave their homeland following the effects of World War 11. Countries and cities were destroyed and there was little opportunity for jobs and prosperity.
“My parents wanted an opportunity for jobs and peace and tranquility following the war. My grandpa was already here, he had immigrated in 1923, He was a coal miner,” Smaila explained.
Smaila share several documents with the students, including his parents’ passports and the actual tickets from their tickets to America.
Despite the cultural and language barriers, Smaila quickly assimilated to his new home country.
“My father spoke seven languages and my mother spoke four. I also speak four,” he explained. “English is the most difficult language in the world to learn. In most languages, a word has just one meaning. In English some words have several meanings.”
Students asked Smaila a series of thoughtful questions and were clearly enthralled by his story of traveling across the ocean to start a new life, with few possessions but emboldened by hope and a belief that a better life could be found in the United States. And a better life they found. All three Smaila children went on to earn college degrees.
“The students were very receptive to his story. From his unique stories, reminiscing of his voyage to America to his dedication to Meyersdale, the kids were enthralled with the information Mr. Smaila presented,” Sines explained. “Several students inquired upon leaving the classroom that they would love to have him come back and present information again. He showcased primary sources such as passports, tickets, citizenship papers and family photos to the students.”
Sines said she was honored to have Smaila address her students, ever mindful of the important impact he had on her own education and certain his story will serve as an inspiration for these young boys and girls.
“In the small village we lived, Rupa, there was little food and work and there was no peace and we wanted to come to the greatest country in the world. Don’t ever forget that, this is the greatest country in the world,” Smaila emphasized. “This is the land of opportunity.”