Tsion and Aksum Woldeyes, 17-year-old Ethiopian twins who attend Wellstone International School, a public school in Minneapolis, have exhibited more resiliency and cross-cultural awareness than most kids their age.
Prompted by an ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, their family of 11 began making the journey to Minnesota years ago. The girls arrived in 2012, living with their dad for three years before their mother was able to join them, siblings in tow. Only the two eldest boys still live in Ethiopia.
Asked if they think others should find value in their immigrant story, the girls gave two very different responses.
Tsion can’t yet articulate how nonimmigrant youth might stand to benefit from hearing her story. She suspects most aren’t all that interested in putting themselves in her shoes — a possibility she shrugs off, hiding how this makes her feel.
On the contrary, Aksum has already begun to embrace the power of her story. She gets frustrated when people assume she came from a life of poverty.
“It’s not true, not for all of us. My life was really great,” she said. “I had family there, we had relatives there. We had our own house, one in the village and one in town, where we lived. And we had our own land to grow foods. My family used to hire people to work for us, to grow food.”
If she had it her way, she’d still be living in Ethiopia. But she’s making the best of her new life in Minnesota. And once she was invited to share her story for the Green Card YOUTH Voices project, she realized others stood to benefit from her story as well.
“I think this [project] makes me feel people are trying to understand us. It’s important to know why we’re here,” she said, noting up to this point she’d never told her story simply because she’d never been asked. “I hope they learn that we’re the same as them. We just have reasons to come here. We [should] try to understand … every person and what their situation is.”
Capturing Tsion and Aksum’s stories in a book, along with 28 other youth immigrant narratives told by Wellstone students, Tea Rozman-Clark, executive director of Green Card Voices, anticipates each of the storytellers — as well as their immigrant peers — will feel empowered, even if it hasn’t yet sunk in for all of them quite yet.
Likewise, she hopes educators who utilize this new resource will feel empowered to teach their students about immigration in a more contemporary, authentic way.
Completing the immigrant narrative
Rozman-Clark has made a career out of documenting immigrants’ stories — their reason for coming to America, the details of their journey, their integration experiences and their future aspirations. Since 2013, she has recorded more than 170 video interviews, which have been converted into a traveling exhibit of poster-sized portraits with written synopses for display in places like schools and public libraries.
An immigrant herself, from Slovenia, Rozman-Clark says she’s passionate about capturing these personal narratives because they’re key to building strong cross-cultural relations.
“When you take a subtle approach, on a personal level, by sharing stories that are shared in a broad way, broadly enough so that anyone can see themselves portrayed in their stories, that’s where the connection happens. That’s where the empathy happens,” she said.
In her estimates, four pervasive immigrant narratives currently dominate mainstream media and culture, none of which suffice.
First, there’s the negative narrative of undocumented immigrants that involves tales of deportation, border security detention centers and families being torn apart.
Second, there’s the historic narrative of European immigrants landing at Ellis Island, where their paperwork was processed at a single entry point. This narrative ignores the rich diversity of today’s immigrant population, Rozman-Clark says. Newcomers from all over the world now land in airports all across the country.
There’s also the rags to riches narrative of celebrity immigrants like Cesar Millan and Rihanna, which diminish the contributions of the everyday immigrant who does less high-profile things like caring for the elderly at a nursing home.
Lastly, there’s the perception that immigrants, especially refugees, are simply beneficiaries in need of assistance. Often, the follow-up story of a recipient who’s self-sufficient and giving back five years later gets left out, she says.
In recent months we’ve seen a new negative narrative emerging, she adds. Politicians such as Donald Trump have cast Muslim immigrants as potential terrorists who pose a threat to national security. Because of the actions of a handful of extremists, more than 41 million immigrants currently living in America are faced with the challenge of separating themselves from the notion that they, too, pose a threat.
The stories of everyday immigrants, as captured by GCV, serve to complete the immigrant narrative.
“We feel that in order to break down the stereotypes, you have to share diverse stories and as many of them as possible,” she said.
A homegrown resource
Teachers who brought their students to see the initial GCV exhibit at Intermedia Arts in the fall of 2014 gave Rozman-Clark lots of positive feedback. Those who work with immigrant youth appreciated the opportunity to connect their students with such a diverse set of inspiring stories of other immigrants. Those who lacked diversity in their classrooms were eager to expose their students to such contemporary immigrant stories.
Their reactions inspired Rozman-Clark to take her project a step further.
Up to this point, GCV had focused on adult immigrants. But Rozman-Clark realized there was a need to equip educators with youth immigrant stories that their students could better connect with.
“We knew that if we produced Green Card YOUTH Voices with the study guide and glossary … it would be a tremendous resource for English, ethnic studies, and social science classes. It would be a resource that is very relevant, timely, contemporary. It’s authentic and local,” she said. “We knew this is a population that you need to tap into because if you really want to address stereotypes and address biases, studies show it’s around high school age that youth start to discover the world around them and start exploring the so-called ‘other’ and making sense of that.”
Working closely with two ESL teachers at Wellstone, she quickly gained approval from Principal Aimee Fearing and the Minneapolis Public Schools district to interview 30 students to be featured in Green Card YOUTH Voices.
“With the inclusion of the ethics studies courses in MPS, I think it really hits on relevant narratives,” Fearing said. “I do believe our most recent immigrant population has yet to see itself represented positively in society, especially within our systems of education. … I think it has to do with having timely, realistic stories of our current population. It allows for our communities to understand the impact of our newly arrived. It also empowers our newly arrived immigrant groups to see they’re part of a fabric here.”
She’s happy to see her students, who often get overlooked, showcased as assets for our schools, employers and communities. Not only are they multilingual and multicultural, they have learned to quickly adapt to new environments in order to survive, she says.
“I’m so proud of our students who are participating,” she said. “It’s a valuable resource. But I also hope they feel celebrated for a moment in their lives and feel empowered to continue serving our community.”
Tara Kennedy, one of the partnering Wellstone ESL teachers, agrees.
“Our students have a wealth of knowledge and abilities and our society marginalizes them at its own danger because our society would be much richer if we worked to fully incorporate their strengths and skills,” she said.
Elia Dimayuga-Bruggeman, the district’s main liaison with GCV, says the district sees great value in elevating the stories of students in its newcomers programs at schools like Wellstone, Edison and South.
“Minneapolis is increasingly rich with diverse students and their language, culture and stories are an asset to our schools and communities,” she said. “We plan to continue working with this project and look forward to continue our work with Green Card Voices.”
Meet the stars
With all 30 narratives recorded — both as video interviews and written first-person stories — Green Card YOUTH Voices is set to be published this May.
In order to cover printing, editing and marketing expenses for 1,000 full-color books, GCV recently launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise $13,000.
Once the initial batch of books sells out, teachers will still be able to order copies through Amazon’s print-on-demand service.
Rozman-Clark says this new book will serve as the perfect complement to the teaching guide she published for middle- and high-school students this past September called “Voices of Immigrant Storytellers,” which features the story of one of MinnPost’s own: Ibrahim Hirsi.
In Green Card YOUTH Voices, Wellstone students from 13 different countries will become cultural ambassadors in their district and wherever else their stories are shared.
In addition to Tsion and Aksum Woldeyes [see their video here], four other narrators sat down with MinnPost to give a preview of the types of stories the book will entail.
Nanah Jalloh, 17, came to the United States from Sierra Leone at age 13. Growing up, she lived with her father, then relatives who neglected to take good care of her, she recalls. When her uniform was ripped, she would skip school for days and she often went without breakfast, she says. Eventually Nanah’s mother, who had made the journey more than a decade prior, sent for her.
She now lives in an apartment with her mother and five sisters, while their father continues to work as a pharmacist in Sierra Leone. After having overcome barriers like the fear of a first airplane ride, the harshness of a first winter and the challenges of suddenly learning in a foreign language, Nanah now has aspirations to go to college and become a nurse. While typically reserved, when it comes to sharing her immigrant story, she says participating in the GCV project made her feel good “because I decided to let it all out.”
“[Immigrant students] need to know who they are and where they’re from, not to act like somebody else,” she said. “The students who are from Minnesota, I hope they understand [the immigrants’] stories and be a little bit nice to them, just welcome them.”
Keriya Hassan, 19, made the journey to Minnesota from the Oromia region of Ethiopia three years ago to live with her father, who had fled years prior to escape political persecution and possibly death. Back in Ethiopia both her parents had been arrested, so they knew the situation was becoming quite serious.
Keriya now lives with her father and five brothers in Minnesota, where she learned English from scratch.
“I didn’t even know how to say ‘Good Morning,’ she said. “Now people know how I came here and why I came here.”
Yonis Yusuf, 17, was born in Somalia and spent the majority of his childhood living as a refugee in Kenya with his aunt before the two traveled to Minnesota about a year ago. His parents, who he’s only known by phone his entire life, arrived two months ago, along with his sister and six brothers.
“We came to have a better life,” he said, noting they couldn’t all live together in Somalia because of corruption and safety concerns raised by the civil war.
In recording his story with GCV, he’s learned a lot about the details of how he and his family survived and he’s excited to share it with others, he says.
Willian Alonzo, 19, decided to move to American on his own at age 17 to find work so that he could send money back to his family in Guatemala. He took a bus from his city to Mexico, where he paid a “coyote” to help him cross the border. From there, he spent more than five days riding atop a train dubbed “The Beast,” sustaining on small amounts of grain he’d packed for the dangerous journey. At the U.S. border, he held onto an inflated tire with five other immigrants to cross the Rio Grande River. Before meeting up with his uncle in Minnesota, he survived a two-day walk with no food or water, evaded offers of heroin from gang members and sat in juvenile detention after being captured.
He now works as a cook in Golden Valley outside of school hours, sending money to his parents and five siblings each month. But he has his sights set on becoming an architect someday.
“I also want to be a motivational speaker,” he said, confiding in his captivated audience inside the Wellstone library. “It’s a new idea. … I spend time here at school trying to motivate my other friends, who sometimes don’t come to school.”