Clarkston, a small town near Atlanta, has gained the nickname “the Ellis Island of the South” due to the many refugees who have found a home there after fleeing war, political persecution or other humanitarian crises.
Today half of the city's 14,000 residents are foreign-born and hail from over 50 countries across six continents.
The city has become a special place for Jihae Cha, an assistant professor of international education at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
For the past decade, Cha has focused much of her research on education in emergencies and protracted crises with the goal of exploring both challenges and opportunities that exist in education for youth in exile.
In 2017, Cha first heard about Clarkston’s efforts to assist families newly resettled in the United States. Curious, she headed to the city. Cha said when she goes into the field to conduct research, she doesn’t always go in with research questions or a specific agenda in mind. Especially in this case, Cha wanted to let the people she met define the story.
“I wanted to go in with an open mind to listen to them,” Cha said. “It's just so fascinating when we think of refugees, we only perceive them as vulnerable and passive – people who are often the recipients of aid without much personal or communal agency. But when you go and see how they're living, they're very active and resilient. They have their own goals and aspirations. They have richness in the culture. Sometimes, they are the agents of change.”
While in Clarkston, Cha volunteered at a summer camp for children of refugee families ranging in age from kindergarten to high school students.
Over the summer of 2022, Cha once again headed to Clarkston and spoke with various nonprofit organizations that serve the refugee community. That’s when Cha met Meh Sod Paw, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in Clarkston. Paw shared her desire to explore her ethnic identity as a Karen through storytelling.
Cha still remembers the words Paw shared with her about her experience trying to find her identity.
“I remember the first day of high school,” Cha recalled Paw saying. “Along the walls were banners with the word ‘Welcome’ in different languages. I was fascinated by the diversity of languages but more importantly, I was excited by the idea that the classroom would be a space where I could finally process some of my experiences and thoughts that had been bottled up inside me for many years.”
Paw continued, telling Cha that she did not feel like her experiences were included in the classroom discussions.
“My research always comes out of necessity from the field,” Cha said. “I asked [Paw], ‘What do you really want to do?’ She told me she wants to invite youth in the community to know the importance of self-expression and finding that greatness.”
After some planning, the result was a two-day intensive writing workshop in August 2022 where participants were encouraged to explore themes of identity and open up about the struggles of navigating a sense of belonging as immigrants in the United States.
That workshop grew into monthly storytelling sessions held through Zoom. The students partaking in the workshop were encouraged to explore different themes that impact their lives including cultural differences and family struggles.
“Most of the participants said that they never got to be in a workshop where they were asked to share about their experiences and identities,” Cha said. “So, for them, listening to friends with similar backgrounds seemed to be a validating experience. Hearing stories that shared common threads developed a really strong sense of community among them.”
Some of the common themes found in the stories were explorations of their journey arriving in the United States, which often involved being displaced from their home country and the difficult conditions they faced along their journey. Some of the stories focused on their memories of their family and friends back home.
“So those pieces continue the exploration of navigating identity and grappling with the past but also moving forward,” Cha said.
As an educator, after listening to the students' stories highlighting the joys and challenges they’ve overcome, Cha wanted to capture their words and share them with others.
“I felt like this is a very important first step for our youth to explore their voice instead of them being regarded as being voiceless,” Cha said.
In March, some of the students participating in the storytelling workshops came to GW to share their work at the Diversity Summit.
“It was just so beautiful. Some people in the audience cried,” Cha said. “I cried a lot listening to their stories. And I've seen them develop their stories and their process of struggling with what to say. It was heart melting to see them grow.”
One of the girls who shared her work told Cha, “I’ve never been this proud to be a refugee. I never knew people would be interested in hearing our stories.”
Cha said they wanted to continue using storytelling to give rise to dignifying narratives and landed on the idea of hosting a week-long, participant-led storytelling summer camp in Clarkston.
The camp, called Stories Worth Sharing, runs from July 10 to July 14. The camp aims to be a safe, inclusive space for students with immigrant backgrounds ages 12 and above to use different art forms to express their stories and journeys.
“We will have all these support systems for the students when needed, but the camp is designed and will be implemented by the youth themselves. So, we thought that helps with the students having agency as well,” Cha said.
The camp is not limited to storytelling to allow participants to express themselves in the way they are most comfortable, which can include other art forms such as music, creative writing, visual media, theater or dance.
“On the fifth day, we want to invite the parents and community members to come and witness how beautiful it is for the students to share their experiences and stories,” Cha said.
When Cha first arrived in Clarkston in 2017, she never imagined this is where that journey would lead but she couldn’t be happier with the result. Conducting this project has been very rewarding, Cha said. For her, the most amazing part of this experience has been seeing the participants grow in their confidence, find community and navigate their identity as immigrants.
“This is one of the reasons why I became a researcher. I wanted to ensure that through my work, the voices of these populations are elevated. I will continue to create opportunities where individuals and communities with refugee and immigrant backgrounds feel respected and valued.”
To find out more about Cha’s research, visit her website.