Wellstone Students Help Change the Immigrant Narrative, One Story at a Time

By Hinrichs, Erin | MinnPost.com, February 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

Wellstone Students Help Change the Immigrant Narrative, One Story at a Time


Hinrichs, Erin, MinnPost.com


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. …

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