Their Story is Our Story: Re-Imagining Migration

Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

By Adam Strom

[This is the third article in a series about the role of storytelling in Jewish Education, written by grantees of The Covenant Foundation.]

When I first moved to New York, I used to wander. My feet would wander, and my mind too. From 14th and 8th, I’d cross downtown, though the Village, the Bowery, what was later called NoHo, past the old St. Patrick’s, into Chinatown and the Lower East Side and back again. This was 1991, and the Lower East Side was still, very much, an immigrant neighborhood. Spanish and Chinese dialects had replaced the German, Italian and Yiddish of the 19th and early 20th century. The apartments in many of the old buildings along Orchard Street were boarded up. I couldn’t help but wonder, in my wanderings, whose stories were hidden away? What mementos were left behind?

Later I got a job running the gallery at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Many visitors would come in, looking to connect to their immigrant pasts. People had stories, and it became clear that part of my job was to listen. Most of what I heard made me smile. There were stories of families, seltzer, shaved ice, pushcarts, and connection. I knew from what I read, that life was not always that easy, but who was I to interject.

Sometimes, mixed in with the memories, were slights toward the newcomers who lived in the neighborhood today. These, of course, were stereotypes, and similar slights had been slung towards members of many of their own families. Other times, visitors to the Museum would immediately see in the lives of today’s immigrants, their own stories.

Of course, the context for today’s migrants is not the Lower East Side of 1906. There are many, many differences. Differences in language, religion, culture, in practice of democracy, and the United States has changed as well. At the same time, it is hard not to see the similarities in the struggles and optimism of newcomers past and present.

Last summer, after 22 years at Facing History and Ourselves, I co-founded Re-Imagining Migration, with Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, leaders in the fields of migration and education and professors at UCLA. Their work powerfully illuminates the impact of migration on youth, while reminding us what is at stake if we are unable to tap the potential of the 26% percent of school-age children who are either migrants or the children of migrants. I enter the discussion of migration knowing that one of the keys to building bridges between newcomers and the native-born is by better understanding our past. Carola and Marcelo often explain: Migration is our past. It is our present. It is our future.

It is that line between past, present, and future that brought me back to the Lower East Side. I don’t live in “the city” anymore, but the Lower East Side isn’t hard to find. You just have to know where to look.

A few years ago, in conversation with The Covenant Foundation about ways to engage the Jewish community in teaching and learning about migration, I suggested that the Bintel Brief, a newspaper column that used to run in the Jewish Daily Forward, might serve as an untapped resource. These letters from the Forward record the ordinary stories and dilemmas of newcomers making their way in a new land. While many of the details are grounded in the context of Jewish immigration in early 20th century New York, the letters raise universal questions about integration, assimilation, and acculturation, themes as timely now as they were when they were written. Teachers, students, all of us, needed to read the Bintel Brief to understand our past, present, and future better. The Covenant Foundation agreed. A little less than a year later Re-Imagining Migration produced Immigration and Identity: Jewish Immigrants and the Bintel Brief.

The letters in the Bintel Brief expose tensions between individuals and the communities in which they live, between religion and secularity, between parents and their native-born children, between husbands and wives, between immigrant Jews, their immigrant neighbors, and longer entrenched Americans. We can recognize the complexity behind the easy labels we use to describe people and remember words like Americans, Jews, and immigrants, can serve as introductions to people and groups, but the more you know, the more you recognize the limits of categorization. If we listen carefully, we will hear echos of these stories from successive generations of immigrants to the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

Indeed, the experience of migration is what connects us as human beings. For 170,000 years human people have been on the move. All of our families, either in this generation or in the past have been migrants. Some have moved by choice, others have been moved, or forced to flee. A second project from Re-Imagining Migration, our Moving Stories storytelling app, aims to capture these stories – of Jewish immigrants and immigrants from all countries – in a simple interview process. Participants are asked to tell their story and to listen to the story of someone else. After the interview, participants are encouraged to recognize changes across time and the continuities between and across experiences. I’ve been piloting the app with educators and have heard from them again and again about the power of listening to someone else’s experience. Without fail they find connections between themselves and their interview partners, even when their families histories are different.

The philosopher, and refugee, Hannah Arendt explained, “We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.” Both of these projects offer opportunities to speak, to listen, and to learn. Moreover, I hope they encourage people to wander through their communities a bit differently. I hope they provoke curiosity and questions about what we share as humans.

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration. a new organization created to foster understanding and the successful inclusion of migrant youth across the globe. Re-Imagining Migration provides resources and training to educators to equip them to engage the children of migration and their peers to learn from one another in reflective learning environments.

The educational resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in Schools, Identity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining helping to found ReImagining Migration, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.