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Stories of refugee youth may be hiding in your program

Pamela-Nippolt.jpgIf you are working with youth, you are probably working youth whose families have sought refuge in the U.S. They may not tell you their stories, but you can learn more about the refugee experience -- and you should -- to create more effective learning spaces for them and for all young people in your program.

More than 50 million citizens across the globe were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2014, the highest number of refugees and internally displaced people since 1994. More than half of them were under the age of 18.

A refugee is a person who, "owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
Hmong story cloth 1.gif

Hmong story cloth
Each displaced young person will have her own experiences and pathway to your youth program and neighborhood. Her experiences vary with her situation and country of origin. Most of these young people have experienced significant loss and trauma as a result of the conflict at the root of their displacement. As a result they may be shy to talk, or respond to you in unexpected ways. How do you as a youth worker, educator or community member receive these youth and their stories - stories that are often very present in young people's lives? What can we learn about youth from these stories?

My name is .... Stories and art by young refugees in Minnesota schools is a compilation of stories told and illustrated by Minnesota youth about their displacement and refugee experiences. The stories are first-hand accounts of young people who have been through trauma who are looking back and remembering. This project, produced by the Center for Victims of Torture in 2005, continues to grow in relevance for youth workers and educators today.

The collection includes a guide for educators, with background information about the refugee experience. For example, the guide includes the common worries of family members who have been displaced, which is a helpful frame of reference for staff with a goal to engage and involve families in their youth programs. The number of youth refugees flowing into the U.S., as tracked by Office of Immigration Statistics, continues to rise. Youth may or may not be prepared to share their stories as they settle in our communities. However, adults in youth programs can learn more about the refugee experience, and be more aware of how these impact youth and their families from this important collection.

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, evaluation and research specialist

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Pam, Thanks for the very informative and insightful post! I can't wait to check out the resource of stories! I will share it with others who will also be excited to know of it! thanks!

  2. Thanks for this blog post, Pam, on such an important topic. Stories give us a context for how and why people do the things they do, how they think, how they learn... And it's often difficult to get those stories without intruding on privacy. That's why whenever the youth or adults I work with do share their story, I feel such a sense of gratitude! Their experiences enrich my own, and then I'm more equipped to provide experiences for them that help them continue on their journey to healing.

  3. Anne - Since writing this, I heard about work at University of Southern California to create a virtual game that gives the game participant an experience of the complexity of living in a conflict zone. For example, the gamer experiences the sounds, sights, and decisions that face someone in a virtual street scene in Syria during a bombing. The purpose of this "game" is to build empathy for those living in conflict situations halfway around the world.
    Another resource to help us understand the refugee experience of youth we work with.

  4. Jessica - I completely understand your sense of gratitude. Stories are so much a part of who we are and stories of trauma and transition are often difficult to share due to concerns about trust and safety.
    Creating a safe learning environment, as you suggest, can include spaces and avenues for youth to share experiences when it helps them with their work in the program or in their relationship with the group. Have you any thoughts about how we can help youth peers in the program, who may not have this same set of traumatic experiences, receive these stories?

  5. Pam, you raise such an important concept: how do we develop the ability to listen and learn from the stories of young people whose personal and family experiences may be well beyond our imagination? Just this month I picked up Henning Mankill's novel The Shadow Girls at the library. This superb Swedish mystery writer who lives half time in Africa writes a fictional account of a Swedish author who starts a writing seminar for immigrant girls in a youth club in northern Sweden. His goal is to "hear their stories" but the book reveals all the reasons why that is a complicated and sometimes elusive undertaking. Good novel -- and very pertinent to your topic. I recommend it.

  6. Joyce, I will be checking The Shadow Girls out. This reminds me that the University leads work on documenting digital histories of immigrants and retains an archived collection at This collection is powerful and personal with stories told around a central object, like the tape recorder used to play cassettes sent from Laos to St. Paul between family members.Thank you for reminding me of this collection and introducing the book.