Empowering Immigrant and Refugee Women Through Digital Storytelling

“They have no idea what it is like to lose home at the risk of never finding home again, have your entire life split between two lands and become the bridge between two countries.” — Rupi Kaur, Milk & Honey


I am a proud first-generation immigrant from India who has been living in the U.S. for the past 15 years. Even as a South Asian immigrant woman with relative privileges, I cannot overlook the deeply troubling anti-immigrant sentiments, negativity and hate that many of us experience, or the oppressive border practices of detaining children and separating families. 

So, when I was invited to participate in a two-day storytelling workshop by StoryCenter that focused on immigrant and refugee women and their journeys, I was thrilled beyond words. The project, “Stories of Home,” was created to provide a “safe, affirming and courageous space” to allow immigrant and refugee women to share their struggles and lived experiences of transitioning to a new country, culture and language. 

StoryCenter’s digital storytelling workshop is a seven-step process that includes identifying a story, writing a highly focused story script and audio recording the script and then selecting images, creating and editing the storyboard and producing a short digital film. As a storyteller in this project and volunteer of StoryCenter for the past year, I have found digital storytelling—especially participating in the Stories of Home workshop—to be a deeply cathartic and healing creative experience.

What was also powerful about Stories of Home was that each storyteller was paired with a woman-identified visual artist from the Bay area. One of the storytellers, Parul Wadhwa, new-media artist and storyteller of Festival of Lights film beautifully said, “it is incredible to create a space of inclusivity for immigrants via the model of storytelling because then its’s both cathartic and non-prescriptive”

Each of the artists’ unique creative and artist skills and insights helped bring our personal stories to life using imagery, illustrations and artwork. “Through this short digital story Lesson 1: Apricots, I was able to connect two very different cultures—Afghan and American—and highlight how much we all have in common, more than we realize or like to admit,” another storyteller, Nahid Fattahi, shared. “I hope future digital stories can shade light on our similarities and make this world more compassionate.”

With the incredible support and sponsorship from Wellness in Action, a program of the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants and StoryCenter, eight short digital films from Stories of Home were publicly screened on Friday, September 27 in Oakland, followed by a panel discussion where audience members posed questions to the storytellers and artists attending this event.

“The screening was incredibly powerful,” one of the visual artists for the films Suenos / Dreams and First Communion, Whitney Aguiñiga, told Ms. “There was an immense showing of support and excitement around the impact these stories have. It was a really lovely moment to honor the bravery of the stories shared and to celebrate the mutual vulnerability that went into the process of storytelling and image making.”

When I walked around in the room of about 30 attendees, I, too, felt the same energy of solidarity, empathy and support—and the same beautiful experience we had encountered during our storytelling workshop last November, especially the Story Circle segment of the workshop. The Story Circle, adapted from Native American and Indigenous community peacekeeping practices, is comprised of storytelling participants taking turns verbally sharing their stories and receiving input and feedback from their fellow participants and the facilitators. 

“Storytelling is such a powerful tool,” Aguiñiga observed. “It is really quite exciting to experience how technology can so successfully connect community members and disseminate information that inspires empathy and ignites compassion. It is particularly exciting that this project combines in-person sharing and creating that can then move to a digital platform with a far wider reach. While these stories are each unique and personal, they are also everyone’s stories—stories of love and loss, of traditions and funny family jokes. They have the power to remind people that we are all the same.”

Stories humanize people as individuals. Listening to stories can build empathy in those who haven’t gone through the same experiences and can make us feel connected and close to our community when we hear similarities or common themes from others’ experiences. 

This project and each of the Stories of Home digital films were unique and powerful because it was inclusive of all cultures, languages, cuisines, geographical origin, and creative imagery—thanks to our wonderful artists!—and practiced community allyship and solidarity. 

As immigrant and refugee women,

Each of our stories matters. 

Each of our voices are important. 

Each of us matter. 

Using creative, innovative, accessible and culturally relevant strategies like digital storytelling, I truly believe we can shift the culture and create social change. I do envision a safe space—where immigrant and refugee women and our families are welcome and embraced by allies and communities and are entitled to equitable resources, support and opportunities for housing, residency, asylum, employment, clean water, safety and other important rights. 

It is now more important than ever to share our personal stories and support those sharing their stories about immigrant and refugee lives—without asking us “to go back home” or “speak English,” or asking “where are you from?” It is also more important than ever to have these uncomfortable yet critical discussions about creating safe spaces for immigrants and refugee families with our own community members including our family, friends and colleagues.  

If we have a safe space, access to a powerful tool like digital storytelling and amazing allies and community support, nothing can stop us from achieving our own unique immigrant version of the American Dream. 


Click here to purchase an illustrated book featuring the Stories of Home.

We are so thankful to our amazing StoryCenter facilitators, Amy Hill and Ngozi Oparah for creating a beautiful and affirming space and opportunity for us storytellers to share personal stories. Our sincere gratitude to also the brilliant artists for their time, efforts and commitment to invest their creative insights and skills to these stories. As storytellers, we cannot imagine the challenge and time the artists invested to go beyond their own comfort zones to beautifully capture our stories through imagery. The community screening in Oakland in September would not have been possible without the support of our funders and the efforts of Patricia Rojas-Zambrano from Wellness in Action. Last but not least, a special shout out to Leah Yael Levy and Esther Elia for designing the beautiful book. 

About

Dr. Meghna Bhat is a proud first-generation immigrant from India who has lived in the U.S. for the past 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a specialization in Gender and Women Studies, and her dissertation explored images of violence against women in Bollywood Indian cinema and its implications for the Indian diaspora in the United States.