Fall 2010

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Connecting Immigrants

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Illustration by David Plunkert

Peter Magai Bul’s childhood came to an abrupt end when he was just 6.

Displaced from his village in Sudan and abandoned by his mother when she could no longer walk, Bul ventured off with his peers, his fellow Lost Boys of Sudan. He joined 300 boys and young men as they walked more than 1,000 miles barefoot, with only the clothes on their backs, to survive the bloody Sudanese civil war. After 12 years in four refugee camps, he eventually made his way to the United States with help from international agencies and settled in Chicago. Now he’s a third-year student at Northeastern Illinois University and hopes to attend law school.

His story, one of thousands among Chicagoland immigrants and refugees, was discovered and reported by students in Professor Jack Doppelt’s Connecting with Immigrant and Multiethnic Communities course. It’s a class unlike any other in the Medill School of Journalism. It goes beyond the nuts and bolts of training students to write a competent story and focuses fundamentally on telling stories of the lives of immigrants and refugees — stories that are intrinsically meaningful.

“This class literally opened my eyes to the world,” says Melissa Sobin, a sophomore from Kenosha, Wis. “It forced us to be very human.” In the spring, 17 students — freshmen to seniors from Medill and other Northwestern schools — produced two sets of stories: one on the generational divide in each of nine Chicago ethnic communities and one on a local refugee. Many students had never conducted an interview and wondered how they would get an immigrant to open up in a second language.

But somehow it worked — beautifully. Stereotypes melted away. The students earned trust and became part of the communities they covered.

Sobin, for example, chatted over chai tea for hours with Omar Muhammad, an Iraqi refugee who had never met a Jewish person before. When Lauren Alexander (J10) interviewed a Latino family in Chicago’s Franklin Park, the discussion went well into the night, and they invited her to sleep over. And senior Phil Jacobson and sophomore Dan Tham, minutes after arriving for an interview, found themselves in the middle of a protest for Tibetan freedom with the Dalai Lama’s cousin outside the Chinese consulate in Chicago.

“It’s like a short-term Peace Corps,” says Stephen Franklin, the ethnic news project director at the Community Media Workshop, who collaborates with Doppelt on the ethnic media portion of the project.

The ultimate goal of the project is to end immigrant isolation and bring diverse communities together through stories in local ethnic media. The combined reach of ethnic media is an area of increasing significance. According to a June 2009 poll by New America Media, 57 million people in the United States (one in every six) get their news from ethnic media outlets. With the nation’s fifth-largest immigrant population (1.4 million in the city and surrounding suburbs), Chicago has 229 ethnic media organizations.

The class worked with editors of nine local ethnic media outlets. Together they selected the theme of generational divides. The students, in small groups, wrote stories specific to the communities they covered. The newspapers then published the stories written for them. Several pieces were translated for the immigrant audiences by a team of Northwestern student translators. All of the content appears on the Immigrant Connect website.

“I don’t know of any other place that’s doing this” — bringing local ethnic media together to explore common themes for all immigrant readers, says Franklin. “We can show how much disparate groups, from different parts of the world, have in common, how much they share.”

Doppelt hopes to take the class one step further in the fall, sending students to one of three overseas refugee camps where students will write about life in the camps. Doppelt is still searching for funding for about 30 students to make the trip, which will be supported in part by Medill and the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies.

The effort will continue to shape the lives of students and the immigrant communities they explore. “This is not just a journalism class,” Franklin, a longtime Chicago Tribune reporter, told the class after the final presentations. “You’ve used journalism tools to come to understand people who cross borders. You entered these cultures and you came with open hearts.

“That’s the most important thing. Journalism is a nice career, but it’s more important to be a good person.”