refugee integration

Empowering Through Storytelling

The act of creating and sharing a narrative is a powerful experience. It’s a shared experience between the narrator and their audience. This relationship between the narrator and their audience is an intimate one.

Asking someone to share with me a story is not foreign. I’ve been doing it with one refugee family for years now as an in-home mentor. I no longer consider myself a mentor; I’d say it’s more accurate to call me a family friend. It’s as if we have an unwritten template. Hi, how was your day? What did you this week? Tell me something exciting that happened to you this week. One question never fails to excite the father of the family: How is work?

His eyes light up. He grins, straightens his posture and clears his throat. This is the beginning of his storytelling process. His narrative could start anywhere: How he’s feeling, maybe explaining where those feelings came from. Sometimes, he includes words that I don’t understand, but I prefer to avoid interrupting the flow as long as I understand the general storyline. He works at a drycleaner and they have codes for referencing the many articles of clothing.

He says, “I need 64 white. My co-worker needs 64 white. He gives me 64 white from the clothing rack.” As he talks about his interactions with his co-workers, he mentions “64 white” multiple times. Then, he pauses.

He must’ve noticed my confused expression, because he chuckles and says, “64 white? All clothes are identified by a number and a color.”

I notice his body language. In his story, he talked about the different materials with which he had to work. When describing the thickness of the material, he said “thick,” and held up his hands about six inches apart. Each time he said “thin,” he held up his hands only about an inch apart. Each hand gesture was followed by a smile of confidence and I would nod to show that I understood. My own body language contributed to the process of his storytelling. I nodded at certain times to show that I understood what he had said. When I tilt my head, he immediately stops, backtracks and takes a moment to retell that segment a different way.

I was not his only audience member. His daughter sat beside me and reacted. She asked questions in Nepali and then asked again in English for me. She and I often nodded at the same time. His storytelling served a different purpose for everyone in the room. As I prepare for more interviews for my research, I practice listening and interviewing skills. How can I improve upon my interviewing skills in order to make the interviewees feel comfortable and excited to share with me their experiences? For his daughter, she gets to hear about his experience at work. The father-daughter relationship grows as she learns about a part of his life that she doesn’t get to see. And finally, for him as the storyteller, he is empowered. He is given assurance and confidence to tell us about his life.

I think back to three years ago, when the father of this family didn’t say much and was often shy to repeat vocabulary words. Today, he shares with confidence. Today, he’s more comfortable talking about life and about himself.

When he ended his story, his daughter said, “’My dad uses a lot of actions. I think it shows confidence.” She is referring to his hand gestures he used throughout his story. The two of them laugh and threw their hands up in the air to mimic the way he talked with his hands.