Immigrant memoir project

May 4, 2012

Seven years ago, political science professor Ron Stockton was mentoring a student from Poland who was struggling with a writing assignment. So Stockton told her to imagine she was writing a letter to her great-grandchildren describing her life here as an immigrant. The student loved the idea, got super excited, and spread the word about Stockton’s technique.  

Now forty students are involved in what’s called the Immigrant Memoir Project, which is based at the University of Michigan Dearborn. They come from places like Iran, Lebanon, Poland, India, and Korea. The program is invitation-only and not-for-school-credit.  

Stockton says the stories people write are rich and sometimes quite moving.  He also says this is one of the most rewarding things he’s done in his career.

Twenty-year old Maryann Rafka has been with the project for one year. Rafka carries a little notebook wherever she goes, and she’s a lover of indie rock music. When she was six, Rafka and her family flew from their homeland in Syria to the U.S.

She writes, “I don’t remember much about my first airplane ride. I do however remember exactly what I was wearing. Long blue suspenders, a Barbie pink shirt, white sneakers and a bow my mother wrapped into my short brown hair.”

Rafka often explores the challenges of having one foot in a traditional Syrian world and another foot in a modern American one.  

Many of the students have found common ground in their experiences of growing up in immigrant families, despite coming from different countries. The students have also found a connection with their instructor, a seventy-one year old white man who can trace his lineage back seven generations in a small, southern town.

Rafka says it’s easier for her to explore her life story with Stockton’s help, because “he hasn’t been through the things we’ve been through.”

She says if we only told our stories to people with similar backgrounds, no one would learn anything.  

The University of Michigan Dearborn is archiving these stories in a collection. The idea is to get a snapshot of metro Detroit’s present-day immigrant community for future generations.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.

Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.