Telling Tales

Students and teachers from UNC and Weld County School District 6

Students and teachers from UNC and Weld County School District 6 who collaborated to publish a book about immigrant and refugee families' stories pose for a group photo in celebration of the books release.

Photo courtesy of Sam Dong Saul

With the help of a group of UNC students, a local public school district program for immigrant and refugee students and their families has published a book that's bridging gaps in the families - and in the community.

Telling Tales: Immigrants' and Refugees' Stories of Transition, Resilience and Hope is a compilation of 40 stories and photographs of 30 families that immigrated to the Greeley area from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Somalia, Kenya, East Africa, Burma and Thailand.

The genesis of the book was El Teatro, a theater program that's part of Weld County School District 6's Newcomers program. El Teatro offers students of refugee and immigrant families a chance to share their life stories - and improve understanding of their native cultures and the challenges they face living in a new one.

Those stories, often handwritten by students and parents as part of a family literacy project incorporated into the El Teatro program, prompted Greeley West High School teacher and Newcomers facilitator Jessica Cooney to propose that each family's story be photocopied into a book.

When UNC Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies Deborah Romero heard the idea, she proposed taking things one step further with the creation of a professionally published book.

"As part of the Newcomers program, the teachers had begun to develop a series of family literacy events following the El Teatro program," Romero explained. "Teachers would work with parents to help them better understand American culture and as part of that, the families shared stories about their journey to the United States."

Undergraduate students from Romero's classes at UNC attended the family literacy events, recording each family's story on paper. Depending on each family's level of English, students would either help the family write the story or simply act as a scribe.

Romero, who served as the book's editor, said that UNC students served as a "real" audience for the families - the more interested in the stories her students were, the more each family opened up to share more information.

Parents and students worked together throughout the literacy events, which ultimately brought the families closer together.

"Teenage kids oftentimes pull away from their parents, no matter what culture they're in," said Cooney. "But with refugee and immigrant students, their parents represent the old culture. Students become Americanized, and this book was a way to connect parents and students together again."

At first, many of the high school students couldn't quite grasp the concept of their stories being published into a book people could actually buy. Now that they've seen the finished product however, more and more students are writing stories to also share with the community.

"I have had several students come up to me with their story already written, asking if they can be in the next book," said Cooney. "The level of enthusiasm the kids are showing towards the book is really amazing."

The book allowed the students to express themselves in ways they weren't able to before; to share what it's like to leave your home because of war, to learn a new language, to face discrimination.

"There is sometimes racism towards us and our families because people don't know about where we come from," said Juan Moncada, a senior at Greeley West. "Everyone has a right to say what is right, which is one of the reasons why we chose to write the book."

Amina Abdi, a junior at the school, found writing the book to be therapeutic for herself, her classmates and their families.

"We hope that once people read our stories, they will finally know and understand who we are."

To purchase the book, go to http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2894879. Proceeds will be used to help fund the school district's family literacy projects and classes in its Newcomers program.

- Katie Owston, Junior Journalism Major