Learning From Refugee Youth

Student example from Story Exchange

Student example from Story Exchange

“There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature; the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. In short, it was conversation.”

– Studs Terkel

As I continue to prepare to conduct interviews (which will likely begin around the same time as fall semester), I’ve been working with PRYSE Academy, which stands for Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment. At PRYSE, we encourage the students to tell stories through a variety of media. The story doesn’t have to be their own, however, it usually ends up being their own, and it usually begins with “I like…” The PRYSE Academy students have given me some ideas about narrative inquiry before I’ve even begun the interviews.

The students, who are in middle and high school, love talking about themselves. Last week, we had educators teach a workshop on storytelling. Rather than giving each of the students lined paper, the students were given a large piece of white construction paper. The instructions were simple: At the top of the paper, write “I am…” and fill the rest of the paper with words, pictures, or drawings of your own. They were asked to answer the question, “Who are you?” through words and pictures creatively. As expected, many of them began with their name. The educators encouraged them to use adjectives to finish the sentence as well. However, very few chose to complete the sentence, “I am…” Rather, the students completed the question, “I like…”

Using a variety of craft supplies including markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, glue and glitter, the students made collages covered in soccer balls, music artists and food – posters of what they liked. When they are asked to talk about themselves and who they are, the first things that come to their minds are what they like and what they are passionate about.

From the combination of words and drawings on the students’ posters, the students were asked to share a narrative that showed a little bit about who they were. This was the most difficult part for the students, but their poster boards served as an outline for their narrative. One student had drawn himself playing soccer and basketball. He had his arms crossed unsure of what was being asked of him.

He said, “I don’t have a story to tell.”

I asked, “Why do you like soccer?”

He clasped his hands together, placed them under his chin and said, “I tried out for my middle school team and got in. That’s it.”

“Tell me more about the team. Do you like playing with your team?”

“Yes! We won our first game by 20 points! That felt great.”

“That’s great!”

“But then we lost our last game of the season…”


“But that’s not important, because I had fun.”

We had a story. We spent a little more time piecing together more details for the presentation. His narrative shows his peers his favorite sport as well as a glimpse into who he is – a team player. It took a bit of time for him to find the pieces of his story to tell.

The narrative process is not an easy one that will simply come to my interviewees. They won’t be middle and high school students; however, the Bhutanese-Nepali adults will also need time to piece together their own narratives. Narratology and narrative inquiry researchers agree that the interviewee should get the opportunity to express himself about the things that matter to him. This is often called “nondirection.” The interviewer should not always try to steer the interviewee into one direction. However, the interviewer should never lose control of the interview.

Just as I let the PRYSE Academy students navigate their own stories through creative processes on the topic of identity, it may be beneficial for my interviews to prepare example narratives on the topic of economic self-sufficiency, which will give them time to think about how to begin forming their narratives around this topic. This will hopefully keep what researchers call “specificity” in play during the interviews. For me, this means listening for what the interviewees want to talk about and ask follow-up questions about specifics when appropriate. Interviewing is a skill that I am working on and hope to develop through this research. I’m learning to do this with the students where they often make it very clear to us when something does or does not matter to them.

Learn more about my project.

Preparing for a Conversation

Kayla Lee - ConversationPreparing open-ended questions and then developing follow-up questions that anticipate the kinds of narratives that could be brought into the interviews is a challenge. It is especially challenging when I am simultaneously redefining my role and presence within a community that is familiar with me.

The first few interviews will be with a family who I have known since my freshman year at CMU. Over the years, I’ve been an in-home mentor to the family, helping with everything from teaching them the English alphabet to demonstrating how coupons work at the grocery store. The countless stories they’ve already shared with me during the weekend visits may have to be retold within the more formal context of my research.

Just the other day, the family turned their television on and shared with me an hour-long video they had produced during their time in the refugee camps in Nepal. It was as if I was taking a walk through the camp with the family. I noticed everyone featured in the film looked a bit younger; it had to have been filmed at least four years ago. This was the first time they shared with me about their lives in the refugee camp. They didn’t have to say much; the sounds and moving images spoke for themselves. Occasionally, someone would stand up and point excitedly to the screen whenever he or she made an appearance. The shared experience in reliving the past with the family that only took place just a few years ago reminded me of why I chose to take a narrative approach for my research project.

For the most part, I watched the video. What fascinated even more was what was happening in the living room I was in. The family and I were sitting on a couch watching the television screen. This was not just for me. I think they enjoy sharing with me a part of my past in this creative way, but more importantly, it is a chance for them to remember. The act of remembering is a powerful tool for humans. People keep journals, take photographs, film short videos and tell stories with others in order to document the memories. It is an empowering tool for humans to be able to remember. For the refugee family, it is especially important for them to share the past with someone who is a part of their new community in Pittsburgh.

For a family who I consider to be friends and know me, what should my first question be? I will need to formally ask them for consent and ask them for biographical information – most of which I already know. Throughout the process of preparation, I realized how important it is to be intentional in forming each of the questions as well as the follow-up questions. I want them to feel empowered as they share their narratives with me.

A great interviewer is someone who makes the interviewee forget that he or she is in an interview. I will need to redefine my role as a researcher with this loving family while maintaining the valuable relationship that I have already developed with them.

I discovered that a lot of my inspiration in preparing for these interviews comes from ESL teachers who work with refugees. English teachers understand the importance of storytelling within the classroom. This derives from the idea of creating a lasting relationship with a new language. I will leave with you one particular experience from an ESL teacher stood out to me this week.

“As we struggled through the first writing assignments, I rejoiced as I saw the tentative beginning of their voices, powerful voices struggling for the words to speak their hearts.” –Approaches to Adult ESL Literacy Instruction.