We Are the Future

We Are the FutureWe Are the Future: Poems with a Voice for Peace is impos­si­ble to read with­out being deeply moved by the open hearts and minds of refugee and immi­grant youth in the Seat­tle area, guid­ed by poets and teach­ers Mer­na Hecht and Car­rie Stradley. Their Sto­ries of Arrival Poet­ry Project at Fos­ter High School has been ongo­ing for 11 years, engag­ing diverse young peo­ple in writ­ing poet­ry. There are stu­dents con­tribut­ing who immi­grat­ed from many coun­tries, includ­ing Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ugan­da, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mex­i­co, and Kenya.

I con­tin­ue to open this book, read­ing and re-read­ing the poet­ry by these amaz­ing young writ­ers, absorb­ing their art, con­vinced that edu­ca­tors around the globe will find inspi­ra­tion in this project, devel­op their own ver­sion of it, there­by offer­ing encour­age­ment, vis­i­bil­i­ty, and com­mu­ni­ty to their students.

Here are some sam­ples, each of which is accom­pa­nied by illus­tra­tions in the book.

My Dad

Who was in the army in Nepal
Who was shot before I was born
Who peo­ple tell me was respect­ful and kind
Who I was told would do any­thing to make peo­ple smile.
Whose heart was open like a flower
Who nev­er said no to his fam­i­ly
Who was full of beau­ty, how I wish I could see his face just once.
Who was more impor­tant to peo­ple than words can say,
Who I nev­er had a chance to meet yet who I love dear­ly,
Who was tak­en away too soon, who mama miss­es
Who cared for and pro­tect­ed our fam­i­ly, who I miss every day,
Who is my king, my dad.

— Jhar­na Sub­ba, from Nepal (page 55)

My Small Town

Let us know you.
Let us feel the breeze of the riv­er
that car­ries our Mex­i­can his­to­ry.
Let us know where we came from.
Let us lis­ten to the melody that trees made
when they blew us the air that kept us alive.
Let us know the rea­sons
of our suf­fer­ing
that I hear every time I can’t sleep.
Let me know where I came from.
Let me know my nationality.

— Self­er Perez, from Mex­i­co (page 16)

In the sec­tion “Meet the Poets,” we learn more about each poet from a pho­to, a sam­pling of their art­work, and a state­ment they’ve writ­ten about their lives and what’s impor­tant to them.

For his self-por­trait, Ahmed Abok­er from Kenya writes:

I am from Kenya.
I was born in 2004.
Why do peo­ple judge how we look?
Are they some­times being racist when they do that?
I am writ­ing this because equal­i­ty is a human right and we all must be equal.

Stories of Our Arrival

We asked Mer­na Hecht and Car­rie Stradley, co-project direc­tors, about their mis­sion, their rea­sons for con­tin­u­ing the Sto­ries of Arrival Project for the past 11 years. Mer­na responded:

What are your hopes with the publication of We Are the Future: Poems With a Voice for Peace?

We hope the book will remind readers of the importance that anyone –youth to elder—needs and has a fundamental right to the space and dignity to speak from their own experience rather than have their experiences and stories told by others. Our hope is that these individual stories can educate the larger community about the experience of migration as it affects young people and their families.

We want this book to serve as a reminder that com­pas­sion and under­stand­ing are increased, not through sound bites about wars and con­flicts, or through over­whelm­ing sta­tis­tics, but through indi­vid­ual sto­ries that touch our hearts and broad­en our sense of what it means to leave a home­land and arrive in a new place.

We hope that the “voic­es of peace” in the book encour­age read­ers to take action against stereo­types and dehu­man­iz­ing speech and stand up for and with the wis­dom, courage and deter­mi­na­tion refugee and immi­grant youth bring to strength­en­ing our communities. 

How do you envision educators in other areas of the country making use of this book?

Carrie and I delight in imagining our book finding its way into middle school and high school classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries in every state! We are aware of the unprecedented need for social and emotional nurturing as schools re-open.

With­in the pages of this book, no mat­ter the loss­es or strug­gles expressed in the poet­ry, self- por­traits and visu­al images, there is a spir­it of hope that shines through. The poems do not hide from express­ing grief, loss, and dra­mat­ic life-changes, nor do they omit the pow­er of dream­ing for bet­ter days and hon­or­ing visions of a more equi­table and peace­ful world for the ben­e­fit of all.

Aware of the many com­plex effects of the pan­dem­ic on young peo­ple, we hope edu­ca­tors will con­sid­er cre­at­ing space in their class­rooms and com­mu­ni­ties for stu­dents to tell their own sto­ries and to bring their voic­es and artis­tic expres­sions to the community.

Our vision is that the book will act as a spring­board for sim­i­lar projects, espe­cial­ly at this time when young peo­ple need to re-con­nect and explore how this year has affect­ed them, their fam­i­lies and their communities.

How do you work with these students to encourage this depth of poetry?

The first word that comes to mind is “trust.” I trust that when our Stories of Arrival students hear me say that poetry is the “language of the heart,” and that writing it is simply “a journey from the heart to the page,” they hear this as true and it gives them an invitation to write their deepest memories and feelings. Most of the students have not written poetry before our project, but they have arrived from countries and cultures where poetry and storytelling have an honored and ancient place in cultural oral traditions. Trust really is the keyword here—creating a safe, nurturing space in the classroom includes reading poems out loud while sitting on the floor in a circle where everyone is equal and no one is above or behind the other.

Also, I spend a great deal of time cre­at­ing pack­ets of men­tor poems and prompts for each year of our project that reflect the themes we’re con­sid­er­ing and that include as many poems as I can find writ­ten by poets from the coun­tries of ori­gin of the stu­dents. I want them to see them­selves and their expe­ri­ences in these poems. Poems are con­tain­ers for the par­tic­u­lar­i­ty of mem­o­ries – tastes, smells, sounds, col­ors and the faces and names of loved ones and loved places; they can pro­vide a nur­tur­ing way to grieve loss­es and share the strug­gles of migra­tion while feel­ing less iso­lat­ed and alone by voic­ing these feel­ings to oth­ers. These mem­o­ries deep­en indi­vid­ual and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty which root stu­dents in their home­lands even as they are also nego­ti­at­ing a new land, lan­guage and an iden­ti­ty that is in flux.

What keeps you involved with Stories of Arrival?

Throughout the years of the project Carrie has written and spoken of how a single test, or for that matter many tests, can never show the positive impact that this project has on her students. Year after year, the students inspire us as we witness how they tell their stories through poetry as English language learners navigating a new language while writing from their experiences. When they share their poems and stories out loud, they recognize themselves in each other’s experiences and build a community of support and understanding .Their poetry becomes a bond between them and at the same time it is a pathway to expressing their deepest feelings in a new language.

I have often said that the lev­el of respect that emerges as the stu­dents build com­mu­ni­ty with each oth­er is like a mod­el UN where peo­ple from dif­fer­ent coun­tries and cul­tures includ­ing regions that are engaged in war­ring fac­tions, sit at one table, break bread togeth­er and fig­ure out how to cre­ate peace (if only). Our priv­i­lege of wit­ness­ing this kind of hope for the future and pos­si­bil­i­ty of peace­mak­ing keeps us deeply invest­ed in the project.

Also, our project thrives on com­mu­ni­ty part­ner­ships and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, and we want to keep reach­ing out to deep­en these rela­tion­ships and cre­ate sus­tain­able inter-gen­er­a­tional projects that bring refugees and immi­grants into the cen­ter of com­mu­ni­ty life — thus we keep mov­ing onward. 

We Are the Future illustration
Copy­right © We Are the Future: Poems With a Voice for Peace,
Sto­ries of Arrival Refugee & Immi­grant Youth Voic­es Poet­ry Project

My reac­tion to this book is expressed well by John Fox, the founder of The Insti­tute for Poet­ic Med­i­cine, who writes about We Are the Future, “These pages, infused with grit and inno­cence, trau­ma and truth, col­or and the sheer alive­ness of these immi­grant and refugee youth, offer me every­thing real and hope­ful. This book is at once a mir­a­cle and most mad­den­ing reminder — these young peo­ple, who are often maligned, are here to teach us! Open the pages of this book and take your time with it. I feel cer­tain that when your heart opens read­ing a par­tic­u­lar poem, the young poet who made that poem, if they would see it in your bright­en­ing face, he or she would cheer you on. That is the world we are sup­posed to be liv­ing in.”

Pur­chase We Are the Future from Chin Music Press, Seat­tle

The Insti­tute for Poet­ic Medicine

Past Projects from Sto­ries of Arrival, Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Center

Mer­na Hecht, Word Travels

Bookol­o­gy’s pri­or arti­cle about Mer­na Hecht and Our Table of Mem­o­ries, a Sto­ries of Arrival project

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Karen Cushman
2 years ago

Won­der­ful arti­cle about a mean­ing­ful and impor­tant project. The young poets’ work is so open and hon­est. I wish I could give a copy to every teacher I know.