Two students spend the summer collecting refugee stories for a future play.
Two years ago, theater professor Stephanie Sandberg spearheaded the production of Lines: the Lived Experience of Race, an ethnographic drama examining race issues in Grand Rapids. Though construction of the play was an intricate, time-consuming process, her objective remained simple: To ignite community discussion around an issue using authentic stories from Grand Rapids citizens.
Now, she’s working to usher in a new conversation regarding refugee resettlement—one she hopes will inspire change.
“We want to know who they are and what their experience has been,” said Sandberg, “We’re interested in improving the situation and improving the way Grand Rapids welcomes refugees.”
But before this conversation can include actors and an audience, a more modest exchange, involving McGregor fellows Jordan Davis and Kristin Kibbe, must take place. The McGregor Undergraduate Research Program pairs students with faculty on research projects in the humanities and social sciences. Davis and Kibbe are helping Sandberg to lay the foundation for her next play by holding interviews with refugees who have made Grand Rapids their home.
The refugees have come from places such as Vietnam, Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia, Bhutan, Burma, Congo, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. While they often have unique and tragic stories to share from home countries, Sandberg likes to start the interview in the present day. Her first question is always, “What have you enjoyed most about living in this country so far?” From there, she asks about how they’ve experienced life here and what changes they’d like to see in the refugee resettlement system—and she then gradually travels into their histories.
“My reason for doing this is two-fold,” said Sandberg about her motivation for this production, “I want to inform people of what’s happening in the world around them. Secondly, how do we encourage one another to become more involved in helping people who are different from us? What does it mean to build cross-cultural relationships? There are more commandments about being hospitable than anything else. Really, it’s all kingdom work when it comes down to it.”
The interviews, which happen sporadically, can last anywhere between a half-hour to an hour-and-a-half, depending on the interviewees’ willingness to answer questions and their proficiency in English, Kibbe said.
The interviewees have been primarily male, both fellows acknowledged, because in many of the countries from which refugees escape, men receive more education than women and thus know more English. “Those that don’t know English can’t interact as fully with Americans, so they aren’t as well integrated and have different frustrations and very different stories,” said Kibbe. In the future, she added, they’re hoping to use translators to allow more interviews with female refugees.
Prior to each interview, Davis and Kibbe work to establish a relaxed atmosphere—a quiet place with cushioned chairs, thoughtfully angled to reassure rather than intimidate the storyteller. In their experience, this calm setting is vital to the process.
“There is a constant struggle to try to explain to the participants that they don’t have to speak with us, that they don’t have to share their stories—that I’m there as a learner and not as an interrogator,” said Davis.
When the interview finally begins, Davis and Kibbe work from a list of questions, but try to let the meeting move organically.
“Ultimately the goal of the interview is to find out more about the person, hopefully in the form of a story, and the questions are a guide to doing so,” said Kibbe.
Before hitting the record button, Davis and Kibbe study the countries and the conflicts that have forced nearly 42 million people to flee their homes. They also look through information provided by resettlement agencies on the steps taken to bring individuals and families from refugee camps into the United States—and on the overall acculturation process. Bethany Christian Services and Lutheran Social Services along with various Grand Rapids churches have helped Sandberg, Davis, and Kibbe get in touch with possible interviewees.
Through this research, they gain insight into the lives of the refugees. It also helps elicit thought-provoking content for Sandberg’s future play and provides background for an audience that may be unfamiliar with struggles occurring abroad.
“Ninety percent of people in the audience won’t know what’s happening in places like Burma,” said Sandberg, “We want them to understand the history of the country and the conflict so that we can have a discussion with them.”
Davis, a senior history major and archaeology minor, first became interested in refugees after joining Calvin’s Middle East Club. Then in the summer of 2011, he volunteered for the Christian Reformed World Missions’ initiative called Hope Equals and spent five weeks in Israel and Palestine, where his passion deepened.
“During the trip, we met with various individuals and organizations working for peace and reconciliation—in both Israel and the Palestinian territories—and I had the opportunity to volunteer with an organization in the West Bank. So when I saw the McGregor opportunity to work with refugees in Grand Rapids, I was immediately interested,” said Davis.
Kibbe, a junior speech pathology major with a minor in international development, became familiar with the project after spending a semester in Ghana in the fall of 2011—a trip led by Sandberg. When Kibbe returned to the U.S., she interned with Challenging Heights, an organization working to end child poverty in Ghana. During this internship, she conducted and transcribed many interviews, making her a prime candidate for Sandberg’s project.
AFTER THE INTERVIEWS
By the end of the project, Sandberg estimates that she will have about 80 transcribed interviews to work from. Kibbe admitted that while she loves interviewing, the transcribing can be tedious.
“I’m trying to get to the point where I have so many interviews that I don’t have time to transcribe,” she joked.
Despite this unpopular task, their overall attitude remains positive.
“Working with refugees—I would do it in my free time,” said Davis
In fact, that’s exactly what they do during free time. Outside of McGregor work, Davis works for an organization called Thrive, a support program that offers ESL classes and aids refugee families that resettlement agencies can no longer assist. Meanwhile, Kibbe has also been helping with ESL classes and hopes to join the New Neighbors program in the fall.