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Green Card Voices project gives Fargo students chance to tell their immigrant stories

FARGO - Biak Sung sits in front of a white screen, the focal point of an arc of five studio lights, video and still cameras, a cameraman, a soundman and an interviewer.With the help of a few notes on a laptop, the tiny but confident 19-year-old w...

Sowda Shube, 15, from Somalia talks about her adjustment to life in Fargo during a taping session for the Green Card Youth Voices project on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, at Fargo South High School.David Samson / The Forum
Sowda Shube, 15, from Somalia talks about her adjustment to life in Fargo during a taping session for the Green Card Youth Voices project on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, at Fargo South High School.David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO - Biak Sung sits in front of a white screen, the focal point of an arc of five studio lights, video and still cameras, a cameraman, a soundman and an interviewer.

With the help of a few notes on a laptop, the tiny but confident 19-year-old works in only slightly halting English, grasping for the words to relate how life took her from her native Burma to Fargo.

Sung, a member of Burma's Christian minority, is in her third year in America and is now a senior at South High School.

English is a struggle at times, Sung said Wednesday, Oct. 5. But math is good. All she has to do in that subject is solve the problem, she said.

She met her father for the first time at age 16. The last time they were together, she wouldn't have remembered. She was just 3 months old. Her mother and brother died when she was young, and she spent years in an orphanage being reunited with her father.

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Sung has learned to deal with Fargo's cold. Without a car, they waited for buses to go to a grocery store. Early on, there was sadness, and tears.

Now, with the help of North Dakota State University's Upward Bound program, she has her sights set on college.

She wants to be a cardiologist.

Despite the challenges, "My life is more better (than) when I first got to Fargo," Sung told interviewer Tea Rozman Clark, executive director of Green Card Voices.

Sung's struggle, her immigrant journey, is one of 30 life stories new Americans at South will share in videos and essays that will be compiled for a book to be published in March 2017, Rozman Clark said.

The South High-focused book and videos will be much like those done for a book titled "Green Card Youth Voices," which featured 30 students from Wellstone High School in Minneapolis.

The goal of the Minneapolis-based Green Card Voices is to change the way the world perceives immigrants by giving them a chance to share their stories.

From Monday, Oct. 3, through Thursday, Oct. 6, that's what the students at South will be doing during taping sessions in the theater and music wing.

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The 30 students at South come from 21 countries.

"The diversity is quite impressive," Rozman Clark said.

The "digital humanities" project is funded by the Bush Foundation, said Rozman Clark, an immigrant from Slovenia. The initiative is immigrant-led and immigrants control their narrative, she said.

Rozman Clark was contacted near the end of the last school year by Leah Juelke, who teaches English to English Language Learners at South.

Juelke said the Green Card Voices project is an amazing opportunity for the students and community.

Seeing and hearing someone tell their story will help community members put "a face and a voice to a perception that they have of a certain culture. And help them understand," she said.

Rozman Clark has worked with the South students since September. In coming weeks and months, the students will polish their essays and help guide the editing of their five-minute video presentations, which include photos of family and friends to further illustrate their stories.

"By the time their story is out there, they are empowered by their own story," Rozman Clark said. "They know their story, and their journey, though difficult, is their asset. It is what has made them stronger. They were able to persevere. Despite the hardship, they achieved already so much, and grown so much."

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She said the topic of immigration is politically charged in the U.S. now.

"We want to show them (immigrants) in full humanity, so people watching or reading can empathize, not just sympathize," she said.

About 12 percent of South's roughly 1,000 students are ELL students. Not all of those students are immigrants, Principal Todd Bertsch said. And not all immigrant students are in the ELL program, if their English skills allow them to leave the program.

The diversity brought by immigrants gives South's student body "a world view many other schools may not have," Bertsch said. "Diversity is a positive. It's certainly an advantage" for students as they make their way in the wider world.

Sowda Shube, an ethnic Somali born in Kenya, is now a 15-year-old sophomore.

She's poised and polished in front of the camera, and while she said her English still needs work, you couldn't tell by listening to her.

Kenya and Fargo may as well be different worlds, Shube said.

The weather is hot in Kenya, with 100 degrees not abnormal. Schooling for her there consisted of memorizing pages from the Koran and learning customs at a religious school.

She arrived in Fargo in early 2009.

"When I got to Fargo, I hated it, honestly," Shube said. "The first time I went to my elementary school (Kennedy Elementary), it was snowing really hard. All the ice was up to my knees, and I said, 'I hate this.' "

But her classmates and teachers were nice, and another girl knew how to speak Swahili, just as she does.

Today, she works and plays soccer and basketball.

"My life right now actually has changed a lot," Shube said.

Now, she'd like to become a lawyer.

"I like standing up for people and showing that they have rights," Shube said.
And she said she's looking forward to completion of the book and video.

"My parents said they would be proud. .. They were happy for me."

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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