Pursuing Dreams: Stories of Refugee and Immigrant Youth in California is a series of stories of overcoming odds. That of survival, resilience, and cross-cultural friendships. Stories in this series highlight moments where opportunity was unlocked and a challenge overcome. At Refugee Transitions (RT), we work with refugee and immigrant newcomers every day who have stories that follow this arc. Some of these stories are not ready to be shared. They are still fresh and raw and hold much pain after having fled war, economic hardships, or violence; lost loved ones; and/or having been resettled after living in refugee camps for many years. Others are crying to be told--we share these here. While some have elements of horror and devastation, all speak of resilience and inspiration. Shared with each other and with new audiences, we believe these stories will serve to raise awareness, appreciation, and a greater understanding of the incredible journeys of newer and younger members in our shared communities.

We were inspired to pursue this project because of the many stories that have been shared informally with us in the past. All our students are refugee, asylee, or immigrant newcomers. These stories almost always include an element of school success or learning the English language, keys that unlocked opportunity and broke down social and linguistic isolation. In light of the backlash against newcomers in our country currently, we thought it especially important to feature these stories, which we believe “shatter the victim box”, and depict resilience, determination, and contributions to our shared communities. We hope that these stories break down abstract divisions and remind us of our humanity and connectedness to others.

Over the course of twelve months, beginning in January 2015, RT worked with a small team of collaborators to map out our project goals and story collection methods. We reached out to our volunteer tutors and after-school staff--our frontline and service team--to work with their students to record and edit stories. Using the “Language Experience Approach” (LEA) that helps language learners develop language skills through familiar content, such as their stories, tutors used open-ended “prompts” that we provided and worked with students to record the stories. While there are many lessons learned from this effort in collecting stories, we are very proud of the results and extremely grateful to our students for their bravery and humility in sharing their stories, and to our volunteers and staff for their continued dedication in working with our students to enhance life prospects and better our shared communities.

As a team, we talked at length about the editing process. Should we correct grammar? Should we edit to create more typical story arcs? Should we go back with additional questions to pull out story lines? In the end, we decided to correct grammar only when it affected the reader’s understanding of the story. We felt that grammatical mistakes were beautiful reminders that all our students are English learners (most submissions were from students who have been in the U.S. for less than 4 years), and that with that lens in mind, these hiccups were trivial when compared to the broader stories. We wanted the stories to remain as the students remembered them and how they wanted to present them, so while we did go back with a few questions here and there, editing on the project team’s part was minimal (although some volunteers may have worked on editing with their students). That said, in a couple of cases, we edited out references that we felt might potentially have negative unintended consequences. This was a tough call but given that we are working with minors, we wanted to be especially mindful. Finally, it was imperative that we present the stories as our narrators wanted them to be presented. As such, except for the three students in our film whose names were already publicly presented and align with their written stories, we gave all our narrators the option to use their first name, a self-selected pseudonym, or initials. We also replaced school names with generic “elementary school” or “high school” so that for stories where there may be sensitivities and students could still be identifiable even with a pseudonym, we could add an element of anonymity at their schools.

We are grateful to California Humanities for making this project possible; and to Brenna Powell (Associate Director, the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation; and Principal, the IPRE Group), and Kate Lord (Humanitarian Photographer and Filmmaker) for providing invaluable guidance as our humanity advisors throughout the project. In addition, Kate filmed and co-produced the award-winning Pursuing Dreams film, teaching us a great deal about documentary making along the way! Many thanks also to Cliff Mayotte and Claire Kiefer for their practical guidance through the Voice of Witness Amplifying Unheard Voices training. While our students submitted their stories in written formats, this training was extremely relevant in informing how we thought through the editing process and honoring our narrators' stories. Finally, none of this would have been possible without the hard work of Julia Glosemeyer, RT's Development and Impact Coordinator, who worked tirelessly to bring together innumerable facets of this project!

With that, I invite you to read through our story series--Pursuing Dreams: Stories of Refugee and Immigrant Youth in California!

Jane Pak
Project Director


This project was made possible with support from California Humanities,
a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
For more information, visit www.calhum.org.

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AuthorRefugee Transitions