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Telling the Tales That Often Go Untold

March 2, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Jack Doppelt is all about connections. So it's not surprising that the Northwestern University professor created a class in which students meet immigrants and present their stories on a Web site called Immigrant Connect.
Online, in the ethnic press and on Chicago public radio, Doppelt's students have helped tell the stories of newcomers to America that often go untold, unshared and unappreciated.
Since the interdisciplinary class was introduced last year by the Medill School of Journalism, Doppelt's students have been visiting Chicago-area ethnic neighborhoods and meeting with individual immigrants, ethnic journalists and immigrant advocacy groups.
"Historically the immigrant experience is one of isolation, and the sharing of stories and information is a time-honored antidote to isolation," said Doppelt, noting the Chicago area is home to 1.5 million immigrants. "Despite their common concerns, people who come to this country from different parts of the world seldom benefit from each other's experiences or stories."
Enter Immigrant Connect, the Web site at http://www.immigrantconnect.org/ that organizes its content around mutually shared immigrant experiences. "There's no area of the site particularly for Arabs, Latinos or Filipinos," said Doppelt. Instead, the site is arranged by nine topics familiar to most immigrants, subjects including "back home," "identity," "culture shock" and "fear of the law."
Immigrant Connect -- which Doppelt calls a continuing work in progress -- provides constantly updated national and international news about immigrants and immigration. It also answers frequently asked questions: What is statelessness? How can undocumented students go to college? What is required to pass the citizenship test?

With help from Northwestern's International Office and Center for Civic Engagement and with funding from The Chicago Community Trust, Doppelt now is assembling a corps of Northwestern student translators. The translation corps will make relevant material from the ethnic press and other sources available on Immigrant Connect.
"This wasn't just a class, it was an experience," said Arianna Hermosillo of "Connecting with Immigrants and Multi-Ethnic Communities," Doppelt's class. A senior majoring in journalism and Latino studies, Hermosillo is the daughter of an immigrant parent. She was drawn to the class out of a desire to "spend time beyond the Northwestern bubble."
"I wanted to learn how to tell the stories of marginalized people," Hermosillo said. And, in doing so, she hoped perhaps to learn something of her own family's immigrant experience. The class, according to Doppelt, attracts students who are the children of immigrants as well as those with little or no personal experience with America's newest arrivals.
In the fall, Doppelt's students held a "summit" with Chicago-area ethnic journalists to come up with a topic of immediate and mutual relevance to multi-ethnic readers. The result was a series of student-written articles on the impact and challenges of the 2010 U.S. Census. The Chicago Reader called the series' simultaneous publication in six ethnic newspapers a rare expression of ethnic unity.
Doppelt's students also contributed work to a program that this winter aired on WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. The show chronicled four immigrants -- from Lithuania, India, Ethiopia and Guatemala -- who not only have made lives in this country but also continue to contribute to the nations they left behind.
The stories uncovered by the students are as diverse as the people who tell them. Among those they have profiled are a businessman who in his home country was one of the "Korean Beatles," an Iraqi chemical engineer struggling to find a job in his profession, a former member of Chilean President Salvador Allende's deposed government, and a once highly regarded Iranian children's textbook writer later accused of treason.
In writing the stories, the students and their subjects often become close. "I was struck by their hospitality and by their willingness to let me into their homes and to open up their lives," said Zoe Jennings, a sophomore studying journalism. "I learned that language can be a barrier to expressing who you truly are, and how it can make you feel smaller and more childlike."
Jessica Allen, a sophomore in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, spent a day thrift shopping with Indonesian immigrant Caroline Kalempouw Williams. Over coffee, Williams talked about one of her greatest frustrations. In Indonesia, she said she was known as a "funny" person with a good sense of humor. In English, it is difficult for her to speak lightheartedly and make people laugh.
On hearing that, Allen re-interviewed Williams, who can be heard on Immigrant Connect giggling after telling a joke about an Indonesian couple and an ATM machine. "You can't help but think it's the sweetest piece," Doppelt said of the audio.

"I had been socialized to think of immigrants as people who have endless opportunities in this country and none at home," said Allen. Allen quickly learned that is often not the case, and took very seriously the mission of "telling the stories of underrepresented people" with accuracy and sensitivity.
Doppelt's class was created with a three-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a foundation that funds interdisciplinary, innovative curricula. This spring his students will tell the stories of 10 different refugee populations in three parts -- their fear of persecution back home, their transitional life in refugee camps and their resettlement in Chicago.
Topics: University News, People