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Can Immigrants Heal Through Storytelling?

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Renowned journalist and storyteller Ira Glass says "Great stories happen to those who can tell them." Newcomers to Canada have some of the richest stories of all; whether arriving here as a refugee, landed immigrant or other status, the stories often involve having to jump many hurdles to come and settle here. The reasons for coming to Canada vary so greatly and everyone's got a story to tell.

Pah Wah was born in Burma (now Myanmar). Her father was active in politics and because of ethnic persecution under the Burmese dictatorship, Pah Wah, at that the age of 14, was forced to flee with her family to a refugee camp located in the jungle of Mae Hong Son.

Thanks to a sponsorship from a Canadian development agency, Pah Wah was able to come to Canada in 2003, to study equity and environmental policy at the University of Toronto. While she was grateful for the opportunity she was given, she felt very torn from the culture, family and life she left behind -- such is the case for many immigrants.

Pah Wah currently works as a settlement worker at North York Community House (NYCH), a neighbourhood centre in northwest Toronto. Her story was created in an innovative program from NYCH called digital storytelling that captures the stories of newcomers to Canada. Pah Wah participated in one of the workshops that helped her share her experience as a refugee through both traditional and digital means. Feeling a sense of healing after sharing her story, Paw Wah now takes the digital storytelling program to other newcomers as a facilitator.

A digital story is a short video that uses photographs, music, and audio narration to depict an experience or moment in a person's life. The stories are unique because they are created entirely by the participant, giving them the opportunity to heal through storytelling while learning the technical skills to be able to produce a short video.

The program currently runs in schools, libraries and a variety of other locations. By the end of each session, participants leave with a greater understanding of video and audio editing. The completed stories are then used to educate the larger community about newcomer issues and advocate for policy change. After viewing newcomer youth digital stories, 75 per cent of school administrators implemented changes to their ESL programs or processes to better meet newcomer needs. Many newcomers that view these stories are able to directly relate to them; learning from other people's experiences, without actually meeting them in person.

One of the main elements of the digital storytelling program is the story circle where participants share their histories with each other in a safe, supportive environment. Often the stories shared are very private and contain a lot of history and strong emotions. For many, this is the first time they have told their story to anyone.

Left to manage life on her own, Hena is one of many young people that came to Canada to escape violence. Living in Somalia, her family escaped to a refugee camp in Kenya. In I Miss You, she begins by saying "It's hard being here with no family; my parents decided to send me to Canada so I can help them..." She reflects on questions of isolation, and doubt in a new country.

While the stories have impact on the viewer, it is the experiences of telling them that can be life-changing. Participants have shared that they feel a weight has been lifted off their shoulders and that they were able to better cope with the challenges that isolation and culture shock bring. In Hena's case, once Hena created her story she became much more engaged in her school and community. She developed a strong relationship with her teachers and facilitated programs to help other Somali youth in her school.

North York Community House has helped produce and capture over 275 stories so far. Many of them can be seen on NYCH's YouTube page.

Founded in 1990, North York Community House (NYCH) is a dynamic neighbourhood centre offering innovative programs and services to newcomers & residents, helping build strong, healthy communities.