‘Migration Narratives’ Panel Discussion Explores Immigrants’ Experience of Life in the United States

November 14, 2016

Left to right: Felicia Arriaga, doctoral candidate at Duke University; Bahij ’17; Hannah Gill, director of the Latino Migration Project and New Roots/Nuevas Raíces; Niklaus Steiner, director the Center for Global Initiatives; Laura Villa Torres, bilingual outreach assistant with New Roots/Nuevas Raíces; Ingrid Smith, manager of global events and exhibitions; Zubair ’18; Katie Bowler Young, director of Global Relations; Katy Clune ’15 M.A. Photo by Alicia Stemper.

Bahij ’17 came to the United States as a refugee, fleeing the Syrian civil war to a place where, he explained, he could enjoy freedom of speech and feel like a citizen.

“When Americans welcome refugees, one day my kids and their kids are going to talk about how this made America great,” he said.

Bahij was one of several panelists at the Migration Narratives exhibition reception and panel discussion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s FedEx Global Education Center on Nov. 3. Migration Narratives features projects undertaken by recent alumni and students, taking viewers on various migration journeys from different communities around the world and giving voices to migrants’ experiences along the way.

Panelists included individuals featured in the exhibition, like Bahij, and project creators. They shared how difficult it can be for migrants to leave their homes and integrate into American society, sometimes without knowing any English. Speakers connected these personal experiences of migration to larger changes in demographics across the U.S., and argued for the importance of recording this history while it is being made.

Opening remarks were given by Katie Bowler Young, director of Global Relations. The panel was moderated by Niklaus Steiner, director of the Center for Global Initiatives and a migrant from Switzerland himself. During the discussion, Steiner emphasized the importance of the terms used for different types of migration and how they differ from each other. He said despite varying definitions of terms like “refugees” and “immigrants,” differences between migrants are not always so simple.

“We like to keep our policies and our laws in such black and white terms because it’s easier that way,” Steiner said. “But as soon as you start reading these stories, you realize there’s so much grayness in between that’s not that simple.”

Katy Clune ’15 M.A. researched two projects in the exhibition, Carolina Connections, in collaboration with the Global Relations office, and Home in a New Place: Making Laos in Morganton, North Carolina, which was drawn from a larger body of work she produced for her master’s thesis. Clune began work on Home in a New Place after meeting a Lao woman and being invited to her family restaurant in Morganton, North Carolina.

“I stepped into this world that this family had completely created to self-represent themselves to Morganton,” Clune said. “Laos is the only landlocked nation in Southeast Asia, relatively small, and most Americans don’t necessarily know what it is, or most certainly don’t know what role our country had in the nation’s history.”

Refugees fleeing the Laotian Civil War and the communist takeover in the 1970s first immigrated to California, then southern states. North Carolina offered an increased quality of life and mountains that resembled Laos, encouraging migration here.

In both projects, Clune found the experience of isolation to be a common factor, especially when immigrants and refugees come from a country that most Americans do not know a lot about.

The Lao community in Morganton is part of a broader demographic shift in the U.S. In recent years in the U.S. South, demographic changes have been especially dramatic in the Latino community. New Roots/Nuevas Raíces: Voices from Carolina del Norte is an oral history project that chronicles North Carolina’s changing Latino population.

“These perspectives are incredibly important to document because they represent a transitional time when many Latinos living in the south still have personal memories and knowledge about their country of origin and settlement in new communities in the United States,” said Hannah Gill, director of the Latino Migration Project and New Roots/Nuevas Raíces. “Thirty to forty years from now, this collection will be an invaluable resource and an historical collection about what it means to be an American.”

Migration Narratives highlights a total of four projects. Divided by the Sea chronicles the experiences of both refugees and community members in Reggio Calabria, a small Italian city caught in the crosshairs of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. New Roots/Nuevas Raíces: Voices from Carolina del Norte is a digital archive of oral histories from Latin American migrants to North Carolina and North Carolinians that have worked for their integration. Home in a New Place: Making Laos in Morganton, North Carolina, follows one immigrant family as they adapt and reshape Lao traditions in the small town of Morganton, North Carolina. Lastly, Carolina Connections provides a glimpse into the lives of current UNC students who were forced to flee the Syrian civil war.

The exhibition will be on display until Dec. 9 in the FedEx Global Education Center. This exhibition is sponsored by UNC Global with support from the African Studies CenterCarolina Asia CenterCarolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim CivilizationsCenter for European Studies, Center for Global InitiativesCenter for the Study of the American SouthCurriculum in Global StudiesDuke-UNC Consortium for Middle East StudiesGlobal Relations and the Institute for the Study of the Americas.


By Haley McDougal ’18