I’ve mentioned before that I am facilitating a project with some middle school teachers in our largest urban school district (Springfield, MA) through a complex partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory and the Veterans Education Project. We’ve been doing a series of professional development days, with a focus on the historic primary source archives of the Armory, and offering a free summer camp experience at the Armory for urban middle school students. The project — which we call Minds Made for Stories, in reference to the book of the same name by Thomas Newkirk — is funded by Mass Humanities and the National Writing Project.
There are a lot of strands to our work, from writing to history, and yesterday, one of those strands — how oral history can enhance understanding of the world — came to life as a visitor to our PD session presented and talked about his childhood in Africa, during war, and his eventual journey to the United States, where he now works to help other immigrants navigate the culture.
Jowel Iranzi’s story is powerful, as he narrates how strife and violence in his native Congo (then, Zaire) led his family to flee, first to Rwanda, and then Burundi and then to Tanzania, living in refugee camps and dealing with the tragic loss of his father and separation from his younger brother and mother. He talks of adversity, of perseverance, of education, of the realization that he cannot look back and blame others for his life situation, but has to look forward and forge a new life out of the ashes of his old one.
We’ll be having Jowel come in to present to students at our camp — which has a social justice theme and is focused on immigration and the Springfield Armory. Our intention is that his personal story, through oral history, will bring to the surface how one struggles and perseveres, and the difficulty of being a refugee and immigrant in the United States can be.
We’re reminded again of the power of story. My sketch-noting of his talk is proof of how complicated a life can be. By listening to his narrative, we all came to better understand Jowel, and in doing so, the larger world, too.
Peace (across the globe),