We hear all the time about America being a land of immigrants, but sometimes we forget that many of our neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and friends are actually refugees. Some faced imprisonment, violence, or other forms of oppression, and all wanted a safer place where they could pursue greater opportunities. Though many of us are apprehensive to ask about their experiences, we can learn a lot from hearing about their hardships, motivation, and determination. Theirs are important voices in America as well as in our world.
The Literature of Witness course at the Woodside Priory School focuses on fiction and nonfiction texts about genocide and other experiences of oppression, such as the child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Besides just reading books on the topics, and in order to connect at a more personal level, students in the course interviewed people who had to flee their homelands. The class brainstormed questions but often found that the interview process was much more fluid and organic. They interviewed people from a wide variety of countries, including Cuba, Hungary, Armenia, Vietnam, and Germany, and from a wide range of experiences, such as war, genocide, political upheaval, and even sexual harassment.
While all students expressed some anxiety before embarking on their interviews, many of them found this assignment to be enlightening, energizing, and even profoundly moving. Students expressed a deeper understanding, compassion, and even empathy for the people they interviewed. Here are a few of the stories that students were willing to share with a wider audience. Let’s begin the journey.