A Night of Stories for Peace

The event highlighted personal stories told by immigrants from Mexico, Iran, Uganda, Iraq and Honduras concerning their lives as immigrants. Photo courtesy of Michael Letterieri/Trans-Border Institute

USD graduate students create event to challenge the community’s perspectives of immigration
Tayler Reviere Verninas | Editor in Chief | USD Vista

On Wednesday, Nov. 29, Kroc School graduate students at the University of San Diego created a special edition of My Story,  an event where speakers from the community have the opportunity to share their life stories. This special edition was called A Night of Stories for Peace: Journeys, and it focused on the journeys of immigrant speakers.

Meli Pérez Valdez from Mexico, Ali Rafi from Iran, Womaniala Gerald from Uganda, Riyam Arabo from Iraq, and José Luis Hernandez Cruz from Honduras were the five speakers who presented their immigration struggles, successes, and difficult journeys.

Riyam Arabo is from the Chaldean minority in Iraq and a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) class of 2016. She explained the importance of knowing the stories of immigrants and refugees.

“In college, students get access to a lot of information and perspective,” Arabo said. “I am afraid that this info is academic-based or statistics, and are seen as numbers and maybe not necessarily understanding the individual stories behind these numbers. Being able to show a real-life story behind these numbers gives life to the situations where they are not just being passed down as information to make a policy off it. But rather, there is a human being being affected by those policies, and reconsidering what kind of action we should take.”

Advertised to the community as a response to the media coverage on topics about immigration, the event focused on stories that would humanize immigrants. A Night of Stories for Peace: Journeys was sponsored by the Peace and Justice Student Association, My Story, Kroc School Trans-Border Institute, Karen and Tom Mulvaney Center for Community, Awareness and Social Action, Center for Inclusion and Diversity, and the Changemaker Hub.

USD master’s student Kait Dugan is in the Peace and Justice program at the Kroc School. She described the inspiration behind the creation of the Journeys event.

“Last year one of my classmates and I, Andrea who was also a co-planner of the event, interviewed José Luis Hernandez Cruz, the last speaker for a paper that we were both writing,” Dugan said. “My paper was the conflict analysis on the violence of migrants in Mexico and their journey north to the U.S. border. And her paper was about why people are leaving the Northern Triangle in Central America, basically. We interviewed Luis and he said he was looking for gigs to talk about his story. We decided it would be a really cool idea to bring together a bunch of people who have stories that have to do with immigration.”

Dugan said that the graduate students were originally thinking of focusing the event on immigration in Latin America, but shifted their focus after the explosion of the political landscape in the U.S. in November of last year.

“I personally started exploring around a lot with the idea of storytelling as a method of building peace and empathy,” Dugan said. “The lack of understanding in different communities is what is at the root of all the hatred that we have seen explode in the U.S. over the past year or so.”

Undergraduate senior Ryan Miranda-Cacdac shared why he attended the on-campus event.

“I think I am someone that is not informed on the perspective of immigration, and I think it is important for me to know their story more and let them be heard,” Miranda-Cacdac said. “I think my perspective definitely changed. One aspect is that it really humanized each person and being able to give a story in that way that lets you understand them not as an immigrant but as another human being. I really enjoyed Ali and Jose’s story. I think that Ali gave his story so beautifully and it was really cool hearing José’s story as well.”

Guest singer Nancy Cordova sang some of her original songs throughout the event. Photo courtesy of Michael Lettieri/Trans-Border Institute

Those in attendance were undergraduates and graduates of the university, faculty, staff, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and members of Border Angels, a non-profit organization that helps migrants along the U.S. – Mexico border. Arabo explained how the event was more than what she had expected.

“In the beginning I thought that we were just going to share our stories and have a little bit of a chat, and maybe be forgotten about and a week later maybe nothing would happen,” Arabo said. “The fact that one of the ACLU representatives was there, it meant that our stories can change perspectives about immigrants and refugees, but they can also be used as cases or evidence for policies of the ACLU that support immigrants and refugees.”

Senior Erin Gosen attended the event with some of her friends and shared what messages impacted her the most.

“A lot of people who haven’t heard stories of immigration might think that all stories of immigration are similar,” Gosen said. “But hearing these five stories, each one was so different that it shows how unique each story is. I think the story that stood out and tugged on my heart the most was the story of a student from UCSD who is a DACA student. I connected with her the most because she was really bubbly, and she told stories about her friends and family that made it sound like that could be me.”

Dugan explained in further detail the long and intense process of preparing these immigrant speakers to present their stories for the special event.

“My Story has this methodology where they assign a specific story mentor to a storyteller to just help them guide and pick out the parts they want to further expand upon,” Dugan said. “But the voice of the speaker stays the voice of the speaker. They coach them through the story development process which was about 2-3 weeks.”

Dugan shared how she felt after the event came to a close.

“I feel freaking amazing, honestly,” Dugan said. “I feel like these sort of things need to happen to get people out and to hear stories that we don’t often hear. Seeing people’s reactions to the stories that they were listening to was one of the most powerful things for me, and I am just so glad to have been able to witness that. And, I would keep in mind that everyone has a story and before we are so quick to judge or label someone as something, we really need to examine their humanity.”

Miranda-Cacdac expressed why events such as these are important for understanding another’s perspective.

“All of us have some sort of responsibility to be able to be there for another human being and let them be heard,” Miranda-Cacdac said. “What José’s story was saying — listening isn’t the most important part but it’s also taking action. It’s me trying to figure out where to go from here. I think once you are able to hear a person’s story, you are able to really understand them less on a superficial level and on a deeper, emotional level that you feel called to take action.”

Gosen also recognized the significance of this event.

“These events are extremely important because every single student has a story,” Gosen said. “Even with topics like immigration that seem intimidating, when each of those five were telling their story I think everyone in the audience was able to connect with one aspect of the story whether it be their family, schooling, or friends. It shows that we all have a lot to connect on, but if we let barriers between us based on these intimidating topics we won’t be able to build relationships.”

As an immigrant and refugee, Arabo stated that she wants others to ask her questions about her journey of immigrating to the U.S.

“I am not sure if this applies to other refugees and immigrants,” Arabo said. “There has been a lot of generalizations and labeling of who I am and people are afraid to ask me questions of my background because they are afraid to offend me. Maybe there are other refugees like me who are willing to answer questions about what we have been through. It is those questions that bring out who we really are even if they think that they are sensitive or cause emotional stirrups.”

The night also included two creative boards — one in which attendees wrote words describing their initial perceptions of the word immigration, and then the other with their thoughts after hearing the stories from the speakers, which Gosen appreciated.

“It goes to show what change can be made in just an hour of hearing stories, so imagine what could be made if you stayed on top of the news or are constantly open to hearing these stories,” Gosen said.

This unique method of storytelling provided valuable insight into the perspectives of those individuals who face immigration struggles throughout their lives. It was an opportunity for members of the USD community to deeply consider the human stories behind the immigration statistics.