Friday, March 12, 2010

The Storytellers Project

Hannah Nusz is a social work practicum student from KU who has been working with us in the refugee program for the past school year. She has done some work with the New Roots program, some work with our orientation and some casework. She loves to tell stories and listen to the stories of others. She had an idea last fall to help refugees tell their stories of resettlement. For the past few months a few of us here at Catholic Charities have been working with a group of refugee students at Northwest Middle School helping them write and illustrate books about their lives. Northwest is in the same neighoborhood as the New Roots farm, and several of the students that we worked with were kids of farmers. It has been fantastic. Below is one of the books written and illustrated by Ah Bay Lay. And although its a little long for a blog post, I'm also including a written reflection that Hannah did about this process because I think it gives a great picture of the power of story. Thanks, Hannah for all your work.

Hannah's Reflection
For awhile, I have been intrigued by the importance of storytelling. I have heard that a good story can be broken down to a simple concept: A character that wants something, and overcomes conflict to get it. This formula can be applied not only to books and writing, but also to our lives. In addition, I realized that it is not only important to live or write meaningful stories, but to also share them and bear witness to the stories of others. These notions are a big part of what inspired me to envision and implement the narrative-storytelling project at Northwest Middle School with the refugee students.
I believe and research shows that storytelling can be very therapeutic for individuals that have experienced some sort of trauma or conflict. Simply giving people the opportunity to tell their story and bearing witness to it can be valuable. I wanted to create this sort of forum for the refugee students. Many of them are thrown into inner-city schools and American life with no time to express the atrocities that they saw or the experience of uprooting and relocating to an entirely new country. While children are incredibly resilient, they also have feelings and emotions and can be shaped by these events.
To begin the process I approached an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at the middle school and proposed my idea. She was immediately receptive and enthusiastic about the project. I was surprised by how easy it was to begin, and in fact throughout the entire process it seemed as though everyone was in exactly the right place at the right time. Through a collaborative effort with the ESL teacher, we contacted eleven students to be in the group. They represented a variety of cultures: Burmese, Somali, Karen, Karenni, and each spoke, understood, and wrote English at varying levels.
At our first meeting, we all sat in a circle and made identity maps. In the maps, we included different hobbies, interests, people, or events that made up our identities. I was shocked when a few of the students immediately jumped into sharing about their lives as refugees. One girl shared how she was afraid to sleep at night, because of gunfire from rebel armies. Another boy that did not write well in English only drew pictures of men fighting. Many of the students seemed willing and ready to voice their experiences and all that they had already seen in their young lives. On the other hand, some students were reluctant and shy and shared only surface level details about their lives, testing the waters I suppose.
When we began the actual writing process it was interesting to see the different ways that students reacted. I remember one boy in particular who immediately launched into writing page after page about his experience in the refugee camps. We quickly realized that some of the other students needed to verbally process and tell their stories, while we wrote down what they said for them. I am glad that we incorporated drawing and artistic expression into the project. Some of the students preferred to tell or support their story through illustrations.
I remember a moment when the collection of students seemed like a real group and family. For me, this occurred while we played musical chairs during a break from writing and illustrating. We shared a simple joy and laughter with one another as we waited to see who would win in the end. I was surprised to learn that in Burmese culture, the person that wins at musical chairs is required to act like an animal in front of the others. The boy that won was timid, but soon he launched into making monkey noises and gestures, while the rest of us could not stop laughing. It was around this time that a teacher came to take a photo of the group for the school yearbook, and she wanted to know what the name of the group was. “The Storytellers” seemed appropriate, and this is what we referred to one another as from that point on.
One of the most beautiful memories from the entire experience was at the final presentation of the books. The students were so excited to see the final printed and bound version of their work. After school, most of them went home to change and prepare for the evening. I went and picked up a few of them to come back to the school to practice reading excerpts from their stories during the presentation. They had invited all of their families, friends, a few teachers, and case workers from the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program. The librarian set up the library with the books displayed on stands similar to an art showing. One of the Catholic Charities social workers went around with a bus to pick up the family members. There were so many people that wanted to come that she had to make two trips in the bus, and additional chairs were hastily set up in the library.
The presentation began with one of the students reading her story about what life was like in the refugee camp, traveling to the United States, and her life now. I stood next to her and thought about how brave she was, telling some of her most vulnerable moments to an audience. Overwhelmed with emotion, I looked out at the audience’s faces as she continued to read. I saw her family, and thought about what a unique opportunity this was for her parents to hear about what their child was thinking and feelings throughout their entire journey, especially for some of these cultures that do not talk about feelings or emotions often. The reason why many refugee families go through the difficult relocation process is for the prospect and hope of a better future for their children. Many of the students touched on this theme in their books, that they were thankful and glad to be able to go to school and receive an education.
Sometimes the concept or desire for “world peace” seems like an elusive and intangible dream. However, I felt like I experienced world peace in a real and concrete way at the book reading and presentation. Each of these refugees came from war zones and fled for their lives. Many of the students grew up in conflict regions. Now, they were all in a room sharing their experiences and understanding one another. They were realizing that they were not alone. I watched as a Burmese boy read his story called “My Life as a Refugee” and a Somali mother listened and lit up with recognition at the details described in the story. After each page that the boy read we would have to pause to wait for all of the translators to translate into the various languages. It may have seemed that there was nothing that these individuals from such distinct and different regions of the world had in common. However, this idea was quickly dissolved as the walls and barriers of communication were destroyed. I felt a deep sense of our shared humanity, and wondered if this was what heaven would feel like.
I remembered back to the first meeting that I had with the ESL teacher. She told me that these were the students that got picked on the most, because they could not speak the language; they did not understand English; they did not have the coolest clothes, and were entirely out of touch with pop-culture. However, on this night, they were the local celebrities; they were the ones that everyone was listening to; they were living fully in their own stories and sharing them with others. I thought about my own life, and felt inspired to embrace my own story. Am I living a good story? Am I living a story worth writing about, reading about, or listening to? Am I embracing my own story and living as the main character? If so, am I inspiring others to do the same?


  1. Very powerful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Its really cool to see a finished book, I had a lot of fun hanging out with you guys. They are a great group of kids, very welcoming.

  3. Great project. I'm sure this meant a lot to a lot of people.