There’s nothing quite as personal or powerful as hearing someone tell their own story. Through telling our stories – our successes and failures, our joys and fears, our adventures and heartbreak – we draw one another in and open up opportunities to learn about each other. MCC Refugee Services understood that the sharing of personal refugee stories could be a wonderful way for the broader community to learn who refugees are and what they have experienced in their journeys to Minnesota. Ten years ago, we founded the Refugee Speakers Bureau to train former refugees to tell their own stories. Since then, hundreds of people have had the opportunity to meet and listen to refugees tell their stories, through which they have learned about the experiences that refugees face from the refugees themselves.
Jan McFall, a longtime MCC volunteer, has been instrumental in preparing former refugees to tell their own stories. She developed MCC’s Public Speaking Skills Class that prepares interested individuals for the opportunity to share their refugee experience. Jan has a background as an educator and English as a Second Language professor, and currently serves as Dean of Fine Arts, Language, and Communication at North Hennepin Community College. Earlier this fall, Jan sat down to talk about her volunteer work with refugees at MCC.
How did you first become interested in working with refugees?
I had lived abroad in a French-speaking country for 8 years and then returned to Minnesota. While overseas, I taught English and had to learn French. In the process of finishing my Master’s degree in English as a Second Language I wanted to get involved somehow with language learners. I found out about the opportunity to volunteer with MCC to establish a public speaking class for refugees and applied. We had a large first class in 2006 with many Liberians in particular.
Why do you think it is important for American audiences to hear personal stories from refugees?
Most people have no point of reference for what it means to have been in a refugee camp—they have no schema for what that means. They might have seen a glimpse on television, but that’s probably about it. Refugees need tools to learn how to paint the picture so that people here can understand what it was like and then want to be part of the community that receives refugees. It keeps people from being ignorant of why refugees are here. They understand that people would much rather return home, but have come here because their country has been torn apart by war or crisis.
Why do you think it is important for refugees to have the opportunity to share their stories?
Telling their story becomes part of their healing and empowers them. They have a story to tell about what has shaped and formed them. In the context of the public speaking class, the teacher can encourage them about the value of their experience and give them a chance to practice English in a low-risk environment.
Can you walk me through a basic outline of what happens in the class?
The class is broken into 4 sessions.
1st day: Participants have to get to know each other and build community with each other. We do exercises that help them learn to speak to each other and build trust between class members and the teacher. In so doing, they become part of a community where it’s okay to share their stories. We also help them understand their audience and what they think they know about American audiences. They practice telling the part of their story that speaks to who they were before crisis struck.
2nd day: Participants talk about the experience that changed everything (crisis) and address who they are now.
3rd day: Participants talk about who they want to become and what they want their lives to look like in this new place.
4th day: Graduation day! We have guests and each person has the chance to share their whole story. The class helps them learn to stay on course and speak within a short time limit, which is much more difficult than having all day to share a story.
It must be hard for class members to tell such difficult stories. What does it take to make this class a safe place for them?
I used to teach a college-level listening and speaking class to English learners. The students would come in beaten down and no one had told them how much they bring to the table. Having world life experiences is valuable! In my own life, I went from being really confident to speaking like a 3 year old in a foreign country. It is so demeaning when people laugh at you, and that’s not even including an experience as significant as being in a refugee camp.
In order for the class to be a safe place to share, the people leading the class need to have a fundamental love and respect for refugees and the experiences they’ve had. If that’s not at the depth of the teacher’s soul, students won’t feel respected. I believe in my heart that these refugees are treasures coming to us and we sit at their feet and learn.
We also need to remember who they were before—they had lives! We don’t get that people had beautiful homes, drove normal cars, went to get what they needed, and it just came undone. They found themselves without a place to live.
The refugees who complete Public Speaking Skills with Jan take a powerful journey, honing the tools they need to share their life stories with those who have never experienced the reality of being a refugee. They show great bravery as they revisit difficult memories and share them with each other and then with a variety of listeners. We are so grateful to Jan for her role in making this class a reality and to refugees for their willingness to share their lives with audiences in the hope of building a more welcoming community for all.