Words by Holly Harrison
Green Card Voices doesn’t just pride itself on telling immigrant stories that won’t be covered by other media outlets—they go about gathering those stories in a unique way as well.
“We really want to respect [our volunteers’] stories and want them to be in control of their narrative,” says Tea Rozman Clark, Green Card Voices Executive Director. They start with a lot of prep, sending their storytellers questions in advance. They work with their storytellers to the very end, letting them see and approve the edited product. And even once their story is online, they still have the option to pull out.
“I was trained as an oral historian, and we love open-ended questions. And for that you need to really take time to know a person,” Tea explains. “Silence is good. You have to be a good listener—which is a very hard job. When we start recording a person, my first question always is, ‘Tell me about your country of birth and your life there.’ Then I’m just quiet. A person might start saying, ‘Look, it’s snowing…I remember when it was snowing for the first time when I was in Minnesota.’ And then they’ll be quiet for a few more minutes. Interviewers have a tendency to say, ‘No no, I asked you another question—one about your country.’ But it may be that the storyteller was about to say, ‘The moment when I saw snow in Minnesota was the first time it really sunk in that I would never see my family again.'”
Tea adds, “I think what we’re missing is really intentional relationships, giving people space, time, patience, respect, humility. You need to create all of that for a person to be able to share their story.”
The intentional relationships, and the trust and honesty that result from them, is apparent in all of Green Card Voices’ stories. While they are very intentional about gathering stories from many countries and perspectives, to complement our feature on Sahra Noor, we asked Tea to take us behind the scenes on a few of their stories on Somali immigrants. Below are the narratives of three Somali-Americans who, like Sahra, have found health and happiness in Minnesota.
Tea: “Ubah came [to Intermedia Arts, where Green Card Voices offices and shoots stories] with her cousin to have her story recorded. I remember her little cousin. I gave her a book of immigrant youth stories to read while she waited and she loved it, and so I gave it to her to keep. During the prep I learned a bit about Ubah and her life in Somalia, how she lost both of her parents and that her life these days revolves around her place of residence, Riverside, and the International Institute of Minnesota in St. Paul where she is getting her nursing training.”
“While she told her story she said, ‘I want to show you a picture of my husband. I’m married now,’ which was news to me. She pulled up the photo on her phone, and it was a picture of a white man wearing a military uniform. And I said, ‘Ubah, that’s your husband?’ and she said, ‘Yes, yes my husband is a pilot.’ And I asked, ‘Where on earth did you meet a pilot?” And she said, ‘Oh, I met him at the Mall of America.’ They met at a food court. She was there with a few friends eating, and he was there with some people eating, and they started talking and exchanged phone numbers.”
“And then she said, ‘And, don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually three months pregnant.’ She’s now in Italy at the American Air Force base there with her husband and their baby.”
“Her story was so dear to me, and I was just so happy for her. Of all the stories we’ve done, those of people who lost their parents, like Ubah did, they just value motherhood and fatherhood so much more. They feel so blessed to even be alive, and to be with their children.”
Tea: “We just have two Somali Willmar stories and they’re both really great. This is Anis—he’s just an amazing, amazing man. He drives an hour to and from work every day, where he works a twelve-hour shift: 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. But he manages, on the night shift, 350 people at the Jennie-O Turkey Store.”
“Anis has small kids. When he came to have his story recorded it was 2:00 p.m., but he’d just woken up and he looked it. And I just tried to put myself in his shoes—you wake up at 2:00 p.m. You hang out for two hours, then your kids come home. Then you’re with your kids or your spouse for an hour. Then at 5:00 p.m. you start driving. I was just so impressed with his dedication. You would have to pay me a million dollars to do that job. And I would probably only be able to do it for a few months.”
“I really believe that immigrants do the hardest jobs out there, because they want to get ahead in life, and because they need to make up for the deficit that was brought on by their circumstances—war and so forth. Not all but some of them are very driven. I always have so much interest in hearing diverse stories, and I think there’s definitely accomplishment and success in opening your own restaurant, but there are also tremendous accomplishments and success in doing something like Anis is.”
Tea: “Zaynab’s story I just absolutely love. There’s rarely a story that I’m just like amazed at what a person has gone through, but hers is amazing. Her mom is Somali, her dad is Yemeni. When her mom got a visa, she couldn’t bring the kids. So Zaynab was sent to Yemen to be raised by her grandma, speaking Arabic. And then when her grandma died, she tried to get reunited with her mom. She left the conflict in Yemen for Egypt, which had a big American embassy but was also in conflict. While there she contracted TB.”
“When you’re an immigrant, it’s very hard to get into this country without a 100% clear medical check-up. I went through it. Everyone immigrating has to go through it. It’s a very invasive and horrible check-up, actually. Before she could leave, she had to go through a yearlong treatment. So finally she was able to come to the United States and join her mom after sixteen years apart. And even though her native tongue is Arabic, she is now part of a Somali community, speaking Somali, which she’s now learning together with English.”
“She moved and now she doesn’t just have to fit into one culture, but one culture and one subculture with two different languages. At the same time, she’s just like the happiest kid. Her face radiates with happiness. She wants to be a lawyer; she’s in a leadership program.”
“Because of the delay in Egypt, her sister aged out and can’t join Zaynab and their mother in the United States. She actually took a boat to Italy from North Africa. She’s now an undocumented immigrant in Holland. The global migration component in Zaynab’s story made me remember there are just so many things that can go wrong. You can age out. You can get sick. You don’t have enough money. Just the perseverance of people here trying to get their kids—it’s amazing. Your life is constantly on hold. We might go, or not. Should I fall in love with this person? Should I work on my career? It’s just so hard to reconcile that instability.”
Help Green Card Voices publish a book of immigration stories from young students at Wellstone International High School! Support their Indiegogo campaign.