The aroma of a savory Ecuadorean chicken stew followed Tea Rozman Clark through Wellstone International High School. Her heels clacked as she sped through the halls in her business suit, carrying a container of seco de pollo, the favorite dish of a student. It was Nathaly Carchi's birthday, and Rozman Clark brought the dish from a restaurant to give Carchi a warming taste of home.
Rozman Clark knows all too well the longing for familiar foods, scents and faces that accompany starting life in a new country. She grew up in Yugoslavia, and first came to live in the United States at age 20. Now, as executive director of Green Card Voices, a digital storytelling program, she wants everyone to know what it's like to be one of the 42 million immigrants in the United States — the bubbling hope and wonder, the sadness and the sacrifice.
The Minneapolis-based organization she co-founded records videos of immigrants sharing their personal stories. The videos are posted online (greencardvoices.com) and converted into text and photos for exhibitions, which get displayed in schools and libraries statewide.
This month, Green Card Voices makes its first foray into book publishing, with the students of Wellstone, a Minneapolis public high school for immigrants, telling their often harrowing stories about their journeys to the United States.
Rozman Clark hopes the book, "Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from a Minneapolis High School," will put a human face on immigration at a time when it has become a hot-button issue worldwide.
"As immigrants, we are portrayed in a certain way, and that's how the receiving community sees us," said Rozman Clark, who was awarded a Bush Foundation fellowship in 2015. "We can either complain about it, or we can do something about it."
Since Green Card Voices was launched in 2013, Rozman Clark has overseen the recording of 180 video testimonies from immigrants both in Minnesota and elsewhere across the United States. She has brought recording equipment to New York City and Willmar, Minn., to weave a multifaceted tale of the modern immigrant experience. As the leader of a three-person team behind the organization, she brings a kind of manic energy to her work.
This book is the first in what she hopes will be a series featuring entrepreneurs, artists and athletes. She wants these books, and their accompanying online videos, to serve as a virtual housewarming party bringing together newcomers with their neighbors.
"Ultimately, it's like meeting them in person," Rozman Clark said. "The more empathy and connection you can create to an individual, you realize: 'This could be my sister, my friend, my neighbor. They have the same dreams, hopes, aspirations as me. We are so much more similar than we are different.' "
Part of the community
Most of the students at Wellstone are recent immigrants who have come to this country in the past four years. They hail from China and Ethiopia, Haiti and Yemen and everywhere in between. Of the students featured in the book, close to half were born in refugee camps, many are supporting their families back home, and three are already parents.
"We want them to be seen," said teacher Tara Kennedy. "They're here, they play a role, and we don't want it to be an invisible one."
Wendy St. Felix, a 19-year-old junior who was forced to relocate to the Dominican Republic after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, felt compelled to participate in the project, despite his shyness.
"I think it is a good idea to tell my stories and other people's stories, because that can teach people to learn about how immigrant life is in this country," he said. "We are part of the community, we are part of the population of the United States, so people have to know us."
The students' tales are at once inspirational and harrowing. Luis Angel Santos Henriquez left El Salvador and his thoughts of suicide so that he could live safely and openly gay. Zaynab Abdi escaped from revolution in Yemen, with a stopover of two years in Egypt while she recovered from tuberculosis. Willian Alonzo got away from the gangs in Guatemala by riding for five days atop a train called "the Beast."
Nathaly Carchi reunited here with her mother, who had emigrated years earlier.
"When I arrived to the United States and saw my mother, I felt really sad and bad," she wrote in her story, "because she was kind of a stranger to me."
The stories also are filled with hope—dreams to become a doctor or an architect, improved understanding of English, even a coming-around to the unfamiliar food. Several students said they didn't like pizza when they got here; now they love it.
Each story is special
Rozman Clark finds a common thread between these stories and her own.
She was 15 when war broke out in Yugoslavia, and her native Slovenia saw an influx of refugees from the Balkans. She volunteered in the refugee camps, and saw the harsh realities of war-torn life. "It made me grow up instantly," she said.
When an opportunity to study in the United States came up, she took it, landing in Eau Claire, Wis.
"I felt for the first time being very far away, being lonely, and being asked several times a day every day, 'Where are you from?' " she said. "Every time people heard your accent, they immediately put you in a certain box. 'Explain to me the war. Explain genocide.' People weren't like, 'Oh, you're taking photography?' It was just so draining."
She continued her studies in the U.S., earning a master's degree from New York University, and later a Ph.D. in cultural history from the University of Nova Gorica in Slovenia. When Slovenia joined the European Union in 2005, Rozman Clark went back to work in aid. In 2012, she returned to the U.S. permanently. This time, she viewed her immigrant status as an asset.
"I always felt that my personal experience can inspire others, and that we are the story we tell," she said. My heart sinks when I hear people born abroad say, 'My story is not important,' or 'I have an accent, so I don't like to speak.' Because it doesn't matter. You are you, and you're special, and your story is special."
Minnesota's immigrant population is rising faster than is the immigrant population nationally, tripling here since 1990, according to U.S. Census data. Around one in six children here has a foreign-born parent. But Rozman Clark knows her project's impact can reach far beyond the state.
When she told the students that their stories would be published in a book, one asked her if she'd be sending a copy to Donald Trump. She said she would. And that she'd send another copy to President Obama.
She'd like to send copies to "everybody, because these kids are the future of America," she said. "They're amazing, and they need to be told they're amazing."