“Can I go outside and scream?” Ngabo asked as we sat in front of the computer, “This is the first time I feel like I have been able to clearly write my thoughts in English. This is what is in my head. This is what I want to say.” He flung open the door, took one step out, and let out a celebratory cry for all the neighbors to hear.
When I initially approached Ngabo to write for a Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest, I was surprised by his enthusiasm. Over the next month, he brought handwritten pages of his thoughts on race, education, and his first months in the United States to every meeting. Though some days were met with frustration over commas and periods, Ngabo persevered and produced an essay we both thought would be worthy of winning the Dallas-area prize.
He didn’t win. I was so proud of the effort he had made to write out his thoughts, and wondered what I could do to share his work with others. After a conversation with both Ngabo and the IRC in Dallas Development team, we agreed that his writing would be a perfect addition to our website.
At the time, we could not have imagined the impact that Ngabo’s essay would have on our office. However in sharing his kurota (“dream”), Ngabo had sparked a desire to cultivate a space in which refugee youth could create and share. Students in the community were eager for the opportunity to write for the IRC in Dallas website, and in that niche, Youth Voices was born.
What began as a way for students to create artistically for the website has transformed over the course of the year in order to better fit the needs of our students. With Youth Voices, the IRC in Dallas provides an extracurricular resource for students to access writing help. Today, students in the Youth Voices program are able to work with IRC staff one-on-one as they learn how to express themselves and share their experiences in English.
In learning how to write and speak about their own experiences, our students have become recognized advocates for refugee and immigrant causes in Dallas. As advocates for their own communities, they have been profiled in magazines, have shared their work on podcasts, have been featured on panels, and invited to speak by elected officials. The skills and essays they developed at the IRC in Dallas have helped our students successfully apply for colleges and scholarships.
Since January 2018, we have worked with 16 students with a varying level of English-language fluency to share memories of their home countries, thoughts on resettling in Dallas, and even poetry. In May, we were able to take this project a step further by self-publishing our students work in print form. After a year and a half, we’re immensely grateful to the students for their incredible work ethic and bravery in sharing their stories.
While we have learned so much from the writings of Dallas refugee youth, the biggest take away is best explained by education activist Sandra Meucci, “Rather than standing or speaking for children, we need to stand with children speaking for themselves.”
Interested in a copy of Youth Voices? Email us at DevelopmentDallas [at] rescue.org (subject: Youth%20Voices%20Book%20Requests) to find out more!
Thank you to our supporters in making this initiative a reality, and a special thank you to Chase Oaks Church for supporting the publication of the first print version of Youth Voices.