16 March 2009

Immigrants: Secret stories, oral histories

Each year, a college assignment reveals secret stories and startling discoveries.

Hunter College sociology professor Nancy Foner requires students in her honor seminar - “The Peopling of New York” - to interview a close relative about the family’s recent history.

Some of the 20 students are spotlighted in this New York Times story, which also provides photos and audio interview samples.

Angela Wu Cen, 19, knew many details about her parents’ 13-year migration from China to Panama to New York. But she had never known much about their courtship.
This year, Aleksandr Akulov, 19, found out that his mother had given up a promising career in mechanical engineering in her native Russia to move to New York, where she found work at a laundromat. Ilirjan Gjonbalaj, 18, discovered that his Albanian parents were smuggled into the country from their home in Montenegro. And Kanushree Jain, 19, learned that her parents were treated with outright hostility in New York by their fellow immigrants from India because they were new arrivals and could not speak English.
Along the way, each student discovered details about the stress, hardship and struggles of immigration.
In a class where most of the students are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, the assignment is not simply an exercise in historical inquiry but also an intense exploration into their own lives and the sacrifices of their forebears.
Foner has written widely about New York immigrants, and says that although there's an image of immigrant kids born and raised in America as being ashamed of their parents, these students are proud of their parents and their experiences.

The stories highlighted cultural issues, discrimination towards newcomers in the same community, illegal immigration, changing professions and upward mobility. The students also learned about their parents' commitment to making a better life.

Some students didn't understand how they could have grown up in their respective families and not known these details.

Read the complete story at the link above.

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