Students, Swedish-Americans swap immigrant stories

Practicing English
At Wellstone High School in Minneapolis, Minn., Omar Ali, a Somali immigrant, talks with JoAnn Swanson, a volunteer from the Swedish American Institute, Feb. 26, 2015.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

During a recent class at Wellstone International High School, girls chatted about their weekend plans in the back of the room. In a corner, a couple of guys talked about their favorite sports teams.

But they were doing just as teacher Joyce Vanderscheuren asked.

The 22 students in the writing class are participants in Story Swap, a collaboration between the American Swedish Institute and the international school. It fosters conversations between the state's newest immigrants and the offspring of earlier immigrants. Students meet with Swedish-American volunteers once a week.

During the class, students follow a curriculum that includes casual conversations.

Besides discussing sports stars, 68-year-old volunteer Dick Sandeen and 16-year-old David Yunda-Jara talked about their families' immigrant experiences.

"The place that I came from is called Santa Rosa, Ecuador," said Yunda-Jara, who arrived in the United States last year.

Sandeen's father emigrated from Sweden in 1922.

"I think one of the great things about the United States is the great variety of cultures," Sandeen told Yunda-Jara.

Multicultural meal
Shukri Ahmed (left) and Chris Lane enjoyed a lunch buffet of Mexican and Somali specialties at Wellstone High School.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

The students hail from Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Most arrived in Minnesota within the last year, speaking little or no English. Story Swap, launched in 2006, gives them a chance to practice their language skills while sharing stories of home.

Omar Ali talked about life in Somalia.

"In Africa, those who did not have any money have to drop out of high school," he said. "Here I have free education. So now I'm looking at a good future. That's why I like Minnesota."

When Swedish-American volunteer JoAnn Swanson complimented Ali, he blushed and covered his face with his hand.

"You know, you're very focused on getting a good education," she told him.

Wellstone High School serves immigrant students ages 14 to 21 who speak little or no English and those who have had a disrupted formal education. Principal Aimee Fearing said many of the students she sees are challenged by being new immigrants.

"They struggle with how people perceive them," she said. "Their language barrier, cultural differences, the way they look, the way they dress, the jobs that people assume they are going to get — all of this makes them so self-removed."

Fearing hopes Story Swap will teach the students about the lives of past immigrants like the Swedes.

"I think part of our responsibility in education is to connect them with the community and say, 'There have been people before you who were refugees, who were immigrants and they've been able to keep their own culture, but they've also been able to move forward,'" she said.

Chris Lane, a retired elementary school teacher, tried to connect with the students by talking to them about their lives in their homeland.

"So these are your sisters who are still in Ethiopia?" Lane asked 16-year-old Shukri Ahmed.

"Yes. They still live in Ethiopia," Ahmed replied. "We send them money."

Ahmed shared her memories of arriving in the United States.

"I have been learning all sorts of things about Shukri's life," Lane said. "Like, before she came, she had never seen a white person before and was quite scared."

Story Swap organizers say the fear of the unknown is a common denominator among immigrants - from the Scandinavians who arrived in Minnesota in the late 1800s to the East Africans resettling in the Twin Cities today.

Immigration experiences
Student Alberto Diaz-Vasquez shared a meal with visitor Terri Carlson at Wellstone High School on February 26, 2015.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

At Wellstone, students also had lessons for each other, and the Swedish volunteers, especially when the cultural exchange stretched into the lunch hour.

At a buffet table that held popular foods from students' home countries, one question eclipsed the others: "How do you eat a tamale?"

Many of the Asian and African students and their visitors stared at their tamales, confused by the cornhusk wrapping. Eventually a Mexican-American student came to the rescue.

"You go like this," Alberto Diaz-Vasquez told volunteer Terri Carlson as he demonstrated how to peel off the husk.

"Just take it all out of there?" asked Carlson.

"Right. You don't eat the wrapping," replied Diaz-Vasquez.

"I've been learning a lot about some cultures I didn't really know anything about," Carlson said.

Her great-grandparents left Sweden bringing only what they could fit into a single trunk. To Diaz-Vasquez, 16, that sounded a lot his experience. He came to the United States with what he could cram into one bag.

The Story Swap program helps immigrant students learn about the things they have in common with previous new arrivals, Vanderscheuren said, and could inspire them to achieve similar success.

"It's a fantastic experience for my students to see that other immigrants went through the same struggles that they have gone through," she said.

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