Young Immigrants Tell the Story of How They Came Here

Aug 14, 2017

Thirteen immigrant high school students in Des Moines are telling their stories for all to hear. They are part of a project at Drake University to share their personal experiences via podcast. 

Drake graduate Nadia Valentine (l) works with Gideon Mesfin to record his story of immigration.
Credit Drake University

Lincoln High senior Heman Gurang is polishing a script to introduce his grandfather.

“He’s from Bhutan, like my family, who was forced to leave Bhutan, then he moved to Nepal. After many years in Nepal, he came to Michigan in the United States,” Gurang reads.

Gurang’s recorded interview with his grandfather is part of a storytelling project funded by a grant from Drake’s Nelson Institute for Diplomacy and International Affairs. Immigrant students from Des Moines public schools are telling their personal sagas about landing in a new country, or recalling stories they’ve heard from family elders. Lincoln High junior Anjana Drukpa was just seven when her single mother brought three daughters to Des Moines from Nepal.

“She wanted us to come here to have a better life, better housing, for safety and education, so we can learn, pursue our career and then get a job,” Drukpa says.

Drukpa’s account of how she and her family settled into a strange city is one of the tales being recorded and loaded to a web site. Another comes from Roosevelt High sophomore Gisell Orellana, who recalls her father’s ordeal leaving Honduras for the States.

“I learned that it took him two months to get here, and he traveled by walking and a train and hitchhiking, and he got hurt a lot,” Orellana says.

Heman Gurang records an introduction for an interview with his grandfather.
Credit Rob Dillard / Iowa Public Radio

The project to capture and preserve the stories of these young immigrants is being directed by three Drake professors from three university departments. Lourdes Gutierrez Najera is an assistant professor of anthropology.

“I’m an immigrant, so this is part of my life’s work,” she says.

Her family came from border towns in Mexico. The things she’s hearing from the students resonate.

“In listening to these stories, I’m just reminded of the resilience of these young people,” she says.

They also hit home for another of the Drake professors, Kevin Lam from the School of Education.

“I came to the U.S. in 1979, when I was about six," he says. "I came here as a boat person, part of the second wave that left Vietnam.”

Lam's eyes moisten as he reflects on what the story-sharing project means for him.

“I’ve gotten emotional because at the most basic level it’s a visceral reaction to the experiences that are based on a lot of pain and trauma,” Lam says.

But it takes a non-immigrant, Drake senior Drew Finney from Waukee, to explain why people should listen to the podcasts once they’re posted on-line.

“Because everyone has a different experience in life," Finney says. "It’s important to understand other people’s perspectives so you’re not stuck in your own bubble.”

Among the goals of this digital exercise in storytelling is to break down stereotypes, to make the debate over immigration more personal. It’s been eight years since Anjana Drukpa arrived in Des Moines from the mountains of Nepal. Her mother was a trained pharmacist, but worked as a laundress to provide for her daughters. One of Drukpa’s sisters works as a translator, another is studying to be a medical assistant. Drukpa is using her story to offer thanks.

“I’ve earned so many recognitions from school," Drukpa says. "I went to the National Academy of Future Physicians and Medical Scientists this summer at Boston University. We’re just working really hard to make our mom proud for what she has done for us.”

The immigrant podcasts will go up on Sound Cloud, iTunes and a customized web site in September.