By Leah Juelke, EL Language Teacher at Fargo South High School

“Bang, bang, bang! I suddenly heard gunshots! ‘Mushitoke mu fuge melango!’ my neighbor shouted. People were crying, screaming and running,” Fargo South junior Ntumba Lusamba started reading in a somber voice. Minutes later, as she was nearing the end of her three-minute excerpt that she chose to read for our public reading at North Dakota State University, and I heard her voice start to waver. She read, “My grandfather knew he wasn’t going to make it. We were only about a half a mile away from the refugee camp when he died. We couldn’t carry him, so we had to leave his body in the forest …” At that moment her eyes filled with tears, and she turned away from the microphone. During our two weeks of practice, Ntumba had practiced countless times and read through her story without tears or much emotion. On this day, reading out loud for an audience made everything seem so real, and her emotions came flooding back.

I rushed up to the front and comforted her with a hug. I asked her if she wanted to continue, as students have done the same in the past. She shook her head, and I told her she could just say “to be continued.” I sent another student with her, as she made her way out of the room. I quickly introduced the next student and then snuck out to talk to Ntumba. She was in the hallway, bent over, wiping tears from her face. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I started crying. I didn’t before. I’m sorry I ruined the reading,” she sobbed.

“What? No way, you didn’t ruin anything. Tears don’t mean you are weak, they mean you are real,” I said, with tears of my own eyes. “You are such a strong, resilient young woman. Never apologize for that. You are honoring the memory of your uncle and grandfather, and they would be so proud of you!” She nodded, smiled and then asked if she could go back and finish reading her story.

When I started the Journey to America project with my high school English Learner students four years ago, I never imagined that it would have such a huge impact on myself, my students or the surrounding community. After reading the first drafts of stories, which were at the time simply a part of a class assignment, I was amazed at how much I learned about my students and how honest and heartbreaking their stories were. I wanted other teachers, students and the community to better understand the reasons as to why and how our refugee and immigrant neighbors leave their native lands. I knew that the stories would also help our teachers connect with these students and therefore facilitate better differentiation for those who needed it.

In 2014, I applied for the Eleanor Laing Law Literacy Grant and received funding to create copies of a class book that featured every story. The grant also helped to bring Sudanese Lost Boy and CEO, John Dau, to Fargo South to inspire the whole school with his message of resilience and to work with my students during a writing workshop. His story of fleeing war, walking thousands of miles and drinking his own urine to survive helped to inspire my students to believe in themselves and to not be ashamed of where they came from.

After the first year, I continued to start off our Journey to America project with immigrant and refugee speakers from around the community. This year students also participated in a modified Narrative 4 story exchange activity with a senior English class of mostly native English speakers. Also new this year, was the addition of visits from the Imagine Thriving mental health organization. Considering the great amounts of trauma that many of my students have faced, it was quite beneficial to bring in experts to help facilitate some activities to address underlying trauma and to let the students know that there are resources to help them.

The next stage involves university students, professors and community members who volunteer with us during the eight-week writing workshop. Students get help with the technical writing of their stories, but also end up connecting with the volunteers on a more personal level. I see the students start opening up and sharing more details about their hardships and their journeys as the volunteers encourage them throughout the process.

Once students finish the writing and editing process, they create an e-book and it is posted on our class website (www.ellfargosouth.weebly.com). A hard copy of the collection of stories soon follows and is distributed throughout the community. The culminating activity for our project is a public reading of the stories at North Dakota State University. Students read a three- to four-minute excerpt of their story in front of a public audience. Last year, and again this year, Fargo Davies High School EL English 4 class also joined in on our project. The feeling I get after watching one of my students confidently read their story to a public audience, in their second, third or even fourth language, is indescribable. I beam with pride, often holding back tears as I watch them in amazement.

Since our first reading, my students and their stories have been featured in magazines, literary journals, newspapers and on the radio. They have won awards from the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest, as well as the Reflections Contest. Through this project, they have been empowered to make a difference and have shared their stories at nursing homes, schools, local conferences and even partnered with a local theater company to spread cultural awareness. A group of students even shared their stories at the State Capitol, in regards to legislation opposing refugee resettlement. My heart continues to swell with pride as I watch my students advocate for themselves and for others.

Last year, the success of the project connected me with the director of Green Card Voices, a Minneapolis-based organization that works on telling the stories of immigrants and refugees. From this partnership, spawned a professionally published book of 31 Fargo South students from twenty one different countries. Along with the book are online interviews, a traveling banner exhibit, and a resource guide for teachers. Two universities as well as Fargo
South currently use the book as part of the curriculum. This year, students continue to travel around North Dakota and do book readings and will participate in the first annual Green Card Voices Youth Leadership Summit sponsored by the Malala Fund (http://www.greencardvoices.com/book-fargo/)

Each year, the Journey to America project brings my class closer together and fosters trust and understanding, creating a foundation to facilitate further learning. What started out as a way to help teach our community about diversity, resulted in a vehicle for building relationships and empowering students to advocate for themselves. My students are some of the most resilient, compassionate and hardworking young people that I have ever
known. I learn something new from them everyday and I am a better teacher because of them.

For Ntumba Lusamba, and all of the other students in my class, January was the first time that they shared their harrowing stories with a group of people, but it will not be their last. Now, more so than ever, it is important that we educate our community about diversity. Through this project, my students have become empowered and are ready to continue sharing their stories, in hopes that our community will better understand their new neighbors and open their minds and their hearts to change.

(Leah Juelke was chosen as the 2018 North Dakota Teacher of the Year, and is an active member of her local association, the Fargo Education Association. She will be a featured speaker at our Student-North Dakota United (SNDU) Professional Development Conference on April 6-7 at the National Energy Center of Excellence, on the campus of Bismarck State College, as well as our NDU Professional Growth Institute on June 4-6 at the CanadInn in Grand Forks. We invited Juelke to share her story in the pages of United Voices, and additionally we would like to open up an invitation to all of our members to do the same for our In Your Voice feature. Send NDU Communications Director Kelly Hagen a note at kelly.hagen@ndunited.org with a brief description of the story you’d like to share, and we will help to shine a light on the great work you all do for our state and our people!)