Immigrant and Refugee Stories: How Storytelling Connects Humanity in Times of Crisis

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

At six years old, Fereshte “Angel” Taherazer was told she was going on a camping trip with her father and brother. In reality, she was fleeing her home in Iran. “There was a war in my country, so I was forced to leave my aunts, my uncles, everyone, to get here. It was systematically hard; you were always in survival mode,” she shared.

Today, as a coordinator at Seattle’s Refugee Women’s Alliance, her personal history connects with on others on an emotional level. “Universally, we all go through the same things: sadness, happiness, grief, loss, success,” she said. “[Storytelling] does bring a feeling of fitting in, and community, and that we are all on this same human experience.”

Throughout history, people have left their home countries to escape persecution, gain political freedom or simply survive. In Venezuela, 6 million citizens deserted the country due to political and economic turmoil; Afghans were forced to migrate in the '80s during the Soviet–Afghan War and more recently due to the Taliban offensive; and since 2011, the civil war in Syria has resulted in 5.5 million refugees, with an additional 6 million internally displaced.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a new global refugee crisis began. Since the incursion, which has already taken the lives of an estimated 600 civilians, 2.8 million of the population is believed to have fled to Poland and other European countries

For refugees and immigrants who feel compelled to leave their homes, storytelling can provide a sense of home, belonging and connection in an unfamiliar environment.

"When I tell my story I always remind myself that I shouldn’t forget where I come from, I shouldn’t forget about where I started, I shouldn’t forget how far I’ve come."

Since 2017, WORLD Channel’s series Stories from the Stage has provided a platform for diverse, multicultural storytellers to share their personal experiences with a national audience; co-executive producers Liz Cheng and Patricia Alvarado Nuñez believe these stories of coming to America create common ground and build connections between people from different backgrounds. 

Over the course of five seasons, refugees like Taherazer from Iran, Cuban-born Ana Hebra Flaster and Rodrique Kalambayi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have told their stories, detailing what it was like, as children, to flee the only home they’d ever known. Immigrants, too, like storyteller Sufian Zhemukhov, who moved to the U.S. from Russia in 2011, are able to share stories to show others who they are in America.

"It's critical for me, and for us, to have as many different voices on our stage as possible. Stories from the Stage aims to create a space where storytellers from all walks of life can tell their stories in their own, unique way. We've recorded around 300 stories so far – over 60 of these stories are from immigrants, refugees or children of immigrants. As an immigrant, I’m proud of this,” said Alvarado Nuñez.

Cheng added, “Sharing one’s deepest-held secrets, most difficult situations – life’s big tests – is an act of generosity. We firmly believe that if you hear a story from someone very different from you, it will be nearly impossible to fear or hate them. We’re optimists; we hope that understanding and empathy can incite positive change.”

“[For] anybody who tells a story about their culture or family, there's a sense of pride and accountability and meaning, but it also gives you an audience to meet other people, listening to you, and giving affirmation that your voice matters,” explained Cheryl Hamilton, director of Stellar Story Company and a story curator & coach for Stories from the Stage. “People want to be included; the question is how do you make that happen. Where do you start? That’s why I do storytelling, because it's a bridge.”

"We’re so resilient and so excited to be here that we are up to any challenge. It’s just taught me how to overcome a lot of situations and have a lot more hope."

From learning English to searching for a job, the challenges migrants face are anything but singular. While his experience was abundantly positive thanks to a supportive community, Zhemukhov, an associate research professor of international affairs at George Washington University, found that adjusting to life in the US was complicated, and something as simple as a joke became an adjustment.

“I used to consider myself funny when I lived in Russia. So, when I came to the US, I was telling jokes, but nobody was laughing. I realized that my jokes were actually based on patriarchal stereotypes, and while they were funny in the gender-divided, patriarchal culture in Russia, here, they were perceived as sexist,” he shared. “Something that I thought of as my basic character trait, it turned out that it was a cultural development, so the same way I had to learn the English language, I had to learn an American way of saying jokes.”

Hamilton, who has also spent two decades directing local and national refugee service programs, believes that one of the biggest misconceptions about refugees in particular is the simplistic view that they are solely victims. “There’s an unfortunate victim-centric story that gets told. ‘We’re welcoming these poor, desperate, traumatized humans.’ We actually have much to learn from our newcomers,” she said.

While no two refugee experiences are the same, hope and resilience stand out as common themes in Taherazer, Hebra Flaster and Kalambayi’s stories. “We’re so resilient and so excited to be here that we are up to any challenge. It’s just taught me how to overcome a lot of situations and have a lot more hope,” Taherazer said.

Resilience is only able to develop in the first place from tough times. As migrants, these storytellers faced hardships not only in their journey to the US, but upon arrival and for many years afterwards. Taherazer found that connecting with people like her was a way to belong. “Growing up, I made friends with all the kids that were immigrants. That’s how you found community,” she shared. “Normally you’re holding on really tight to the people who are a lot like you. We relied on each other for that real community, that bond [of people] who had similar experiences as us.”

Hebra Flaster, a writer who arrived in Nashua, NH from Cuba in 1967, had a distinct experience: “We were one of very, very few Latinos, so we had no other community but the mainstream community. There was no choice – you had to integrate, you had to assimilate. That was quite different from my family members who landed in Miami, where there were huge numbers of Cubans. If you didn’t want to learn English, you really didn’t have to,” she said. “Our family was really united in its view of Cuban culture and pride in who we were. That included being able to do whatever you needed to do in your life and being whatever you wanted to be, and go out with your head held high and welcome this new world into our home.”

From both sides, sharing experiences from home is a large part of a migrant’s ability to find their place in the US. Storytelling fills the gap where the human aspect is lost. “Because good storytelling focuses on universal truths, it bridges those relationships faster,” Hamilton said. “Storytelling is also a wonderful way to honor the places you came from, because the stories we tell shape the way others view the world…It’s important for people to make those bridges and feel like they didn't leave everything behind.”

When migrants, especially refugees, leave their homes, that sense of loss rings true. “When we got on that bus and left [Iran] that day, I didn’t realize that I would never see my home again; I would never play with my cousins again. I didn't realize how much I was sacrificing,” Taherazer shared. “When you're a refugee, you often cannot go back; you knew it was permanent. There is a sense of a permanent loss of everything,” Hebra Flaster echoed.

But sharing stories keeps the spirit of home alive and honors one’s family and heritage. 

“When I tell my story I always remind myself that I shouldn’t forget where I come from, I shouldn’t forget about where I started, I shouldn’t forget how far I’ve come. [It’s] the foundation for where I’m going. When I’m on stage and I tell my story, it’s kind of like a reminder: Don’t forget where you’re coming from,” said Kalambayi, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo at 10 years old.

Hebra Flaster, too, feels that through storytelling, she’s “doing her bit” by sharing her story of leaving Cuba: “It revives, for me, the most magical parts of growing up in a refugee family – the moments where, the viejos, the elders, were around the table telling their stories and feeling happy again, and being able to laugh even at the sad parts, and resurrecting a world. It’s like you're at a big kitchen table with your audience,” she said.

Beyond making real, human connections with those around them, what the storytellers have also found is that sharing their journeys, as difficult as it can be at times, allows them to come to terms with their experiences. “There are some people who relate to my story, even if they didn’t go through the same thing as me, It gave me the courage to continue telling my story,” Kalambayi said.

As an immigrant, Zhemukhov believes that storytelling is a way to give a voice and opportunity to the migrant community. “I find that being an immigrant storyteller is really important for other immigrants. Immigrants are very underrepresented in this country, even though there are millions. Most immigrants are not represented in legislation, not represented in the judicial system or executive branches. Their voice is not fully represented,” he said.

Cheng and Alvarado Núñez are personally committed to giving a voice to other immigrants. “Patricia emigrated from Panama, and I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants. We deeply understand the challenges and rewards of coming to America and trying to establish a life and a future for one’s family,” Cheng shared. “We know what it’s like to be different, to be considered ‘the other.’"

"People want to be included…The question is: Where do you start? That’s why I do storytelling, because it's a bridge."

As we watch the conflict in Ukraine unfold, it sometimes can be difficult to comprehend a person’s situation that is so different from our own. Stories from those who have endured similar experiences pave the way for compassion and understanding.

The migrant experience is far from one-dimensional. Listening to stories, and allowing perspectives and opinions that differ from our own to become more of a dominant narrative in our world, brings us closer together. 

Watch Stories from the Stage Mondays at 9:30/8:30c, or stream online. Hear more from these storytellers in our Where Home Is playlist.

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