By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The sky blue of the ocean brings me my memories, I remember all the sky and clouds surrounding my emotions: sadness, hatefulness, happiness, loneliness and loveliness.”
In a poem titled “I Remember,” then 15-year-old Jaymark Cabang recalls his homeland, the Philippines. Cabang is one of a diverse student group from the multilingual class at Foster High School, where for the past eight years, each new class has been creating a poetry anthology. Part of The Stories of Arrival: Refugee and Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project, the anthology is the heart’s work of teacher Carrie Stradley, Vashon Island poet Merna Hecht, and students from around the world. With the mentorship and instruction of Stradley and Hecht, the students not only compose poems on selected themes each year, but also create accompanying visual art and have a chance to record themselves speaking their poems through Jack Straw Cultural Center.
In “We Are the Future: Poems with a Voice for Peace”—the anthology for the 2020-2021 academic year—the poems and visual artwork speak of separation and loss. They speak of painful memories, but also hope for the future.
Students from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Nepal, and other nations under siege by environmental and political turmoil, talk about forced migration, and they talk about home. Within a few pages, the reader is struck by the depth of emotion and experience of these young people, and by how atrociously adults have let them down.
“The hardest thing for me isn’t the painful struggle that any one young person has had because they are, for me, a source of hope and I see their courage and resilience…the most painful thing for me is…what kind of world are we offering these kids?” Hecht, project founder and co-director, told the Weekly.
Stradley, co-director, hopes readers will “recognize the validity of youth voice” that often gets “overlooked because people think they don’t have authority or agency,” and yet, “they are listening and watching more than we know.” It is clear from the poems and images that youth such as Cabang view the world with all senses wide open, and they see the good and the bad.
“I remember the violence, raping, and killing in my country. And I remember the sound of Mother Nature coming into my heart, sounding like a bee.”
Cabang’s poem talks of closely observed joys of childhood, as well as tragedies that no child should have to withstand. In another poem on climate change, one of the themes for this year’s anthology, Cabang hopes for a solution because “the clouds are crying” and in his self-portrait introduction at the end of the book, he explains his struggles as a student in the Philippines, walking for hours back and forth to school every day. In the accompanying image, Cabang’s face is colored an exhausted red, and he is loaded down by his backpack.
Cabang said he liked participating in the project because he feels great that “people could understand about me and know about me, knowing who I am and how I live.” Stradley and Hecht also hope the books will raise awareness of other cultures and bring them closer to us.
“One of the most important things we’re trying to do with this project is beat the stereotypical, sometimes very racist…narratives and flip the narrative to the deeply human,” explained Hecht, who emphasized how much she learns every year from these students, such as about “the space of arrival” that is “neither here nor there.”
“I had no idea the depth and complexity of what that space meant…a young person that has left your motherland…we learn more about what immigration, forced migration, means on the deep, storied, personal level.”
All of the participants find an outlet in poetry and visual image that is simply not possible in everyday speech or formal English class, especially when English is not your first language. Stradley loves that poetry gives students a chance to tell their stories themselves. She still recalls a poem from a student years ago, who said, “It’s so hard to live in somebody else’s country.” Working on this project has helped her better understand the immigrant experience and is a constant reminder to her to check her own biases.
“Especially as white educators, it’s our responsibility to check in with ourselves. The people that are in front of us are all students of color and we have to continually…grow and learn and be open…this is work that is never ending and that’s why we keep coming back to it.”
When students take the class, they are around 15 and 16 years old. Their poetry vividly demonstrates how much they love the countries they have been forced to leave behind, for whatever reason, even as they heroically endeavor to adjust to life in the United States.
In “Letter to Vietnam,” Viet Q. Nguyen fervently writes, “Leave Vietnam forever in peace…Leave the land for our next generation, leave our pride and happiness without the taste of war. Leave the youth with backpacks on their backs for their future…”
You can open to any page and find a heart-rending line, and tribute to the ability of poetry to allow “the heart to go to the page,” as Hecht describes. Yet some contributions are light-hearted, such as the self-portrait by Vietnamese student Mai Thy Luu, who depicts herself wearing cool glasses, Vietnamese flag on her cheek, drinking boba tea. The book shows us youth who are older in their thinking than we suppose, and yet the children inside of them ache for home.
“Orange, my favorite fruit and my favorite color,
Yellow, the sun when it’s raining every morning in Samoa,
Blue, the sound of the ocean waves in my country…” (Timothy Tafa, “Let Us Celebrate”)
“We Are the Future: Poems with a Voice for Peace” can be purchased at Chin Music Press. Former editions from “The Stories of Arrival” can be found on Amazon and Chatwin Press. Proceeds from sale of the books help fund an academic scholarship for the students.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.