Student Collects Oral Histories from Young Refugees

Junior Jordan Korn recorded interviews with five individuals who, as young teens, emigrated from war-torn countries, and she shared their refugee and settlement stories with local middle school students on Wednesday, March 24.

The project was part of Jordan’s Norton Fellowship, a community engagement program administered by Loomis Chaffee’s Norton Family Center for the Common Good.

Jordan tutors recently resettled kids in math through a community outreach initiative at her place of worship, and the experience inspired her to record the oral history of teenage refugees. She said she was interested in learning what it was like for her peers to come to a new country, learn a new language, attend a new school, and become part of a new community. She explained that when she heard about the global refugee crisis, she tended to think of refugees as “one giant mass, not as individuals.” Through her project, Jordan hopes to better understand the human side of the refugee experience and share the individual stories of young refugees with listening audiences.

Jordan embarked on her project during the summer of 2020, when communities were coping with the safety precautions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of local resettlement organizations and her spiritual community, Jordan connected with young immigrants willing to record their experiences for Jordan’s project. She recorded the personal narratives of five refugees — two from the Democratic Republic of Congo and three from Syria — who had settled with their families in the Hartford area when they were of middle school age. All are now young adults, attending local universities or working, and all have mastered the English language.

Working with Eric LaForest, Keller Family Director of the Norton Family Center, and Sara Markman, science teacher and coordinator of religious programs at Loomis, Jordan developed a lesson plan about the young refugee experience for a middle school-age audience. She used the recorded personal narratives to emphasize the human experience of making a new home in a new country. Jordan originally had planned to record a podcast with the interviews, but faced with the challenges of producing a podcast and finding an audience for the content, she shifted to developing the middle school lesson plan.

On the evening of March 24, Jordan presented the lesson to 12 students in a religious education class taught by Sara at Congregation Kol Haverim in Glastonbury, Connecticut. The class took place over Zoom, and a handful of adults from the congregation also joined the videoconference to hear Jordan’s presentation.

After first describing some of the reasons people make the difficult choice to leave their homes and seek refuge in a foreign country, Jordan shared some statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency about the current global refugee crisis. In 2019, according to the U.N. figures, 79.5 million individuals fled their homes due to conflict and persecution, and there are now an unprecedented 26 million refugees in the world.

“Many of these refugees are under the age of 16. As a teenager myself, I can’t imagine what it is like to go through that kind of trauma,” Jordan told the class.

She presented an overview of the kinds of situations her interviewees fled in their home countries as well as some of the governmental policies and procedures that the United States has established to deal with large and growing numbers of refugees.

Without identifying the individuals, except for their countries of origin and current status as a student or employee, Jordan played the recorded voices so the Zoom audience could hear their stories.

The interviewees spoke of distrust, mistreatment, and racism that they experienced in refugee camps in countries bordering their homes. They expressed their reluctance to start over, again and again, while moving from place to place as well as their families’ frustrations trying to navigate the government bureaucracy associated with refugee resettlement. Two of the young women spoke of experiencing Islamophobia in the United States, including being interrogated on the job and in public about their wearing hijabs as required by their Muslim faith. One of the Muslim women was assaulted in her 10th-grade class and didn’t speak enough English at the time to tell anyone. The interviewees said they often felt resented, were looked upon as strange, were ostracized in their new homes, and were isolated and fearful at first. One of the interviewees spoke about how it had been much harder for his parents and older siblings to be away from their home, to learn a new language, and to adjust to their new home’s culture.

Jordan told the Zoom audience that many of the young refugees said they eventually found solace and friendship among other immigrant groups that they discovered through soccer games and classes for English as a Second Language. And they gradually began to embrace their new lives.

At the end of her presentation, Jordan asked the students how they felt about what they had heard. Sara asked her students if they had experienced being a “new kid” at school, and she asked them what they could do to make someone new feel welcome.

Sara said her students appreciated Jordan’s presentation.

“This was their introduction to their G’Milut Hasadim Unit, which means ‘acts of loving kindness.’ It is a major theme that they learn about in religious school since it is such a huge part of Judaism,” she wrote in an email after the class. Sara added that her students plan to focus on refugees as part of their community engagement project.

For Jordan, the experience helped put a human face on the refugee crisis, from which she had previously felt removed.

“Talking to people with real experiences puts things in perspective,” she said.

Eric summarized his impressions in an email. “Jordan excelled as a Norton Fellow because she understands the power of storytelling both in opening doors for her activism and in making intractable problems seem more personal and therefore solvable. With each project she takes on, she raises the bar again and again on what it means to be an engaged citizen,” he wrote.

Connect to the Norton Family Center website page for more about community engagement at Loomis Chaffee.