Narratives about immigrants and refugees tend to follow a common storyline — one that begins with an individual escaping persecution or poverty in a certain developing country, and ends with the person achieving success after he or she arrives in the United States.
Such narratives are abundant in news articles, books and documentaries that aim to shed light on the lives and experiences of foreign-born residents as they try to make their mark in America.
It’s true, of course, that many refugees and immigrants are survivors of violence in their home countries and come to the U.S. with few resources, and it’s worthwhile telling their stories. But there are other aspects of immigrant and refugees’ lives, too, ones that aren’t tied to being victims of oppression and violence; they’re also artists, farmers, technicians, businesspeople, and teachers — people who led rich and varied lives in the countries of their birth, details that are often left out of classic immigrant narratives.
That’s where Green Card Voices (GCV) comes in. A Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to documenting the experiences of foreign-born U.S. residents in Minnesota, it recently released a book — “Green Card Entrepreneur Voices — containing 20 first-person stories of immigrants and refugees who have established successful businesses in Minnesota.
The book is the fifth GCV has published since May 2017, collections that accentuate both the meaningful lives that immigrants and refugees led prior to leaving their countries as well as their current contributions to Minnesota.
The need for such books, say GCV leaders, has become more prevalent as anti-immigration sentiments have increased in recent years. As a result, the GCV book project has received attention from high schools, higher education institutions and places of worship in cities throughout the United States, including Atlanta; Madison, Wisconsin; and Fargo, North Dakota.
“We have had requests from a lot of schools that said, ‘We see an increase in bullying, and our students need to better understand topics of immigration,’” said GCV Executive Director Tea Rozman-Clark. “There are a lot of people seeking out resources, like books, that would help them understand the stories of new Americans.”
Moving into the publishing industry
The books haven’t always been at the center of GCV’s mission. The organization, which was created in 2013, initially functioned as a video-based platform, documenting stories of immigrants and refugees, and posting them on its website for the public to access.
Two years later, the GCV created a teaching guide from hundreds of its video-based immigrant stories to give middle- and high-school students a glimpse into the diverse life experiences of modern-day immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Meanwhile, GCV had been traveling with photo exhibits to high schools, public libraries and community centers in various cities across the state, including the Twin Cities, Eden Prairie, Brooklyn Park, Stillwater, St. Cloud, Bloomington, Hopkins, Duluth and Rochester.
Then, in 2016, Rozman-Clark received a call from Wellstone International High School asking her to work with immigrant and refugee students in writing and recording their stories. In the process, Rozman-Clark said she realized that the project could result in not just digital stories and a teaching guide, but a collection of essays that would empower both students and Minnesotans seeking to learn more about new Americans.
In May 2016, GCV published its first book, Green Card YOUTH Voices; in March 2017, it published another collection of essays by immigrant and refugee high-school students in Fargo; and in June of that year, the organization also published a similar book about stories of St. Paul students.
By now, Rozman-Clark and dozens of student authors had received invitations to speak with statewide nonimmigrant communities about the journeys, challenges and opportunities immigrant and refugee groups face as they establish new lives in America.
One community in Atlanta didn’t wanted to just hear from immigrants in Minnesota; they wanted GCV to help them to produce a book featuring immigrant and refugee students in several high schools in Atlanta. So in March of 2018, GCV published yet another book containing 21 first-person stories about immigrant and refugee high-school students — from Burma, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and other countries — who are now studying in Atlanta Public Schools.
Last week, GCV published its fifth book, “Green Card Entrepreneur Voices,” which chronicles the journeys of 20 immigrant and refugee business owners to the U.S. It describes how they managed to establish successful businesses, as well as important experiences they cultivated in the process.
More to the story
Among those featured in GCV’s latest book is Tomme Beevas, an immigrant from Jamaica and owner of Minneapolis’ Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, who first came to the U.S. to study at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Like almost everyone in the book, Beevas doesn’t just discuss the violence that forced him out of his country; he paints a positive image of his childhood years in Jamaica, the town he grew up in and people with whom he interacted as a young man.
“My life in Jamaica was awesome,” Beevas writes of Kingston in the book. “It’s the spiritual capital of the country, it’s the financial capital of the country, and it’s the political capital of the country.”
Like Beevas, Biên Hòa, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee more than four decades ago, writes about “a good time” he experienced in Vietnam, even during the deadly U.S.-Vietnam war. “Growing up in Vietnam was good,” Hòa says. “[W]e hung out, went fishing, and went to school.”
The immigrant narratives in GCV books and videos, said Rozman-Clark, are meant to be different from those often told and retold in the mainstream media. “Every accomplished immigrant you read about,” she said, “first comes to the U.S. poor — and usually with only a few hundred dollars in his name.”
Books in demand
The books have remained in high demand since GCV started publishing them 12 months ago. In Fargo alone, for example, the organization has sold more than 3,000 copies of its books about immigrant and refugee students.
In total, GCV has sold more than 10,000 in Minnesota and other Midwestern states.
Though many people buy the books on the organization’s website, on Amazon and at bookstores, leaders at higher education institutions, worship places and high schools order them in large numbers, said Rozman-Clark.
“About 70 percent of our books are ordered by school districts and universities and are required readings for different classes,” she said. “The books give people the opportunity to get a glimpse of the lives of these new individuals beyond what they read in the newspaper or passing these individuals on the streets.”
Some of the institutions that currently use GCV books include Carleton College, St. Olaf College, St. Catherine University, Metropolitan State University, Hamline University and North Dakota State University.
Next year, GCV plans to publish three more books about immigrants and refugees. Two of them will feature foreign-born residents in Wisconsin and South Dakota, and the third one will be a graphic novel.
“While we have great digital stories that are used a lot in public schools, having these books was another amazing resource for schools and individuals alike,” she said. “Especially in the Midwest, people love book reading.”