One Day You Will Be One of the Happier: The Voices and Poetry of Teen Immigrants

Bridging Borders with Words: Writing with Immigrant and Refugee Students

The following interviews with students attending the International High School at Union Square were conducted by Susan Karwoska in January 2019. The students, all recent immigrants to the US, discussed poetry, writing, and what it has been like for them to come to this country. International High School is one of fifteen New York City public high schools in the Internationals Network, which enrolls recently arrived refugees and immigrants who are English language learners. The school enrolls only immigrants who have lived in the United States for four years or less and has students from over fifty counties who speak more than twenty-five native languages. The interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.

The student poetry included herewas written in the poetry workshops and/or poetry club the students attended at the school in the fall of 2018, taught by Teachers & Writers Collaborative teaching artist Sarah Dohrmann.

This article is first in a series in Teachers & Writers Magazine on working with immigrant and refugee writers. Read the second piece in the series, “Two Poetry Prompts to Inspire Immigrant Teens” here. You may also be interested in Wynne Kontos’ interview with 2018 Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning about creating a refuge and community in her classroom.

Uriel Solis

Immigrated to the US from El Salvador in 2016 when he was 15.

“When I was in 10th grade, my English teacher told me that there was going to be a poetry club at our school. I decided to try it and I really liked it. I learned a lot about myself and I improved my writing. For me, writing in English is totally different than writing in Spanish. Even though I still think in Spanish, I find it’s easier for me to write what I want to say in English. When I’m writing in English I feel that I can put anything I want on the paper.

“I don’t really watch the news. I don’t really focus that much on what people say about immigrants, but I hear things and I think the experiences that immigrants have are totally different than what some people think and say about them. I think if more people could hear what immigrants have to say, they would be more accepted, and more respected.”

“Just a Little Bit of the Truth”
After “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes 
by Uriel Solis, Grade 11
 
Well let me tell you that for me coming to the US
was the most cool and dangerous
thing I ever did
 
There will be dangers that will
challenge you to give your best
 
The sun
the drought
the hunger
will show you what you are made of
 
You will see many different faces
looking to the same red little light
that looks close but is not
 
Remember your father, your mother,
they went through the same path and now is your turn,
is the time for you to show that you can
 
Do not trust anybody because at the
end it will be just God, you, and
the money you hide in your socks

Alhasan Almalaiki

Immigrated to the US. from Yemen in 2016.

“I’ve always liked writing but when I would write stories I always felt that something was missing, even when I rewrote them. Poetry has shown me different ways of writing. You can repeat things, for instance, and that makes it sound beautiful. You can give things a sense of meaning. You can put your feelings down, your ideas, your dreams.

“If the war did not happen in Yemen I would probably be in my country right now, but this country has given me a lot of opportunities. I had to change many things: the way I act, the way I dress, the way that I talk to people. When I sit with people from my culture it is totally different from when I sit with people here. Being here has shown me that human beings can be more than just one thing. It has shown me that the stereotypes are never true. What I love about this school, about being here, is that I live with people from all over the world and every person here is amazing in their own way. If I was still in my country I would never have met all these people and I might hold the same stereotypes I heard from others. Being here has given me the opportunity to be a better person.

“If I could share my writing with anyone it would be my grandfather, who died last month. He was proud of me the way I was but he always inspired me to be better. He showed me that whatever I wanted to be I could be, that I didn’t have to follow the ways other people take, or be the way society wants me to be. He used to write poems back in my country and was known for his strong tongue. He would stand up and face leaders, anybody. They tried to take his land but he stood up to them and won. Everything I say about him is kind of like my poetry. I really wish he could have read it.”

“My Sides: Peace vs Violence”
After “one-bedroom solo” by Sheila Maldonado
by Alhasan Almalaiki, Grade 11

Always the violent me wants to reply to all of the people who are
disrespecting me or just being rude. Always the violent me wants
to break that person’s nose who raises their voice over my voice or me.
Always it just wants me to be mad. But the peaceful me always wins.
The peaceful me always smiles to all of the people who disrespect me,
always finds another way. Sometimes people think that I am a coward,
but still always the peaceful part wins even if I don’t like it. It just wins
.

Pegdwende Malika Sawadogo

Immigrated to the US from Burkina Faso in 2016 when she was 15.

“Since I was back in my country I have been interested in writing. Writing poetry is helping me to be a better writer, to express myself. Before when I wrote I was putting in so much metaphor that people could not understand what I really meant! Only I knew what my heart wanted to say. But since I started this class I have learned how to write so that other people might understand what my heart means to say.

“I write a lot of poems about my dad. He is not here with me—he is back in Burkina Faso, but he still inspires me. All the time I hear his voice.

“At first when I came here I was afraid because I didn’t speak English. Once when I was going to school I got lost so I asked a woman to guide me, but instead of helping me she tried to change my accent. She said the way I was saying the address was not correct. I was already late but instead of showing me how to get there she was saying, ‘you don’t speak English correctly.’

“Someday I would like to write a book about my experiences and I know that I will do it. I want people to know that we are all equal, and that immigrants also have hearts.”

“Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou”
After “Knoxville, Tennessee” by Nikki Giovanni     
by Pegdwende Malika Sawadogo, Grade 11
 
I always like summer best
with my friends
My father always says, “Malika, calm down with your friends.”
We used to go out in the morning, using one motorbike
I used to ride and take two friends with me
on the small and full roads of Ouagadougou.
We used to buy hot beef brochettes, drink sodas,
choose one friend’s house where we could dance
to good coupé-décalé songs and eat.
Those times were always hot with talk and laughter
Yes, I can still hear their laugh till now
and we will see each other one day
Love you, sisters
Keep being crazy and wait for me.

Nagagne Diba

Immigrated to the US from Senegal in 2016.

“For me it is not difficult to be here in this country because people have welcomed me. All my neighbors in my building in Harlem, from all different countries, and some Americans too, have welcomed me here. In Senegal people are mostly all the same culture but here people are all different cultures. Being here helped me to learn a lot about the world. When I was in Senegal I didn’t know that much about the rest of the world, how people are different. Writing poetry helps me to explain how I feel about these things. And reading poetry is fun. When I read a poem I feel something and it makes me think about things. It makes me imagine things.”

“Someday You Will Love Diba”
After “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong                          
by Nagagne Diba, Grade 11

One day will come
You will have many lovers
And few enemies

Don’t give up!
 
Just follow the direction your parents and your people
Tell you
 
Don’t give up

 
Even on the path there are people who try to
Stop you
 
Don’t give up
 
Just be yourself.
Don’t turn around to look who is behind,
Look at the thing that is only in front of you.
 
Don’t give up
 
One day will come
 
You will be proud of yourself
 
One day will come

 
You will be thankful of your people and family
One day will come
 
Your enemy will become your friend
 
One day will come
 
You will become the best
 
One day will come
 
You will be one of the happier

Sami

Immigrated to the US from Bangladesh in 2015 when he was 14.

“At the beginning when I first came here I was scared. I’m an immigrant and I’m a Muslim, so I am really in the middle of things here. I think it’s very important for us as immigrants to understand what our rights are and also how we can help ourselves. I think getting educated is one of the most important things we can do. We need to help people see that they don’t have to fear us, that we are also human.

“In Bangladesh I never met a foreigner. It was only Bengalis, Bengalis, Bengalis. So when I came here I had some problems at first because of stereotypes I’d learned, but I started to become more open-minded when I came to this high school. There are so many people here from all around the world, and meeting them, knowing them, really helped me to understand more about other immigrants—and more about myself. “I like to be creative and poetry really helps me to express my thoughts, to say how I feel, whether that’s good or bad. I’ve learned how to be more creative with my writing, how to integrate different words and different styles. I don’t really like to share my work—I always write for myself—but if I showed it to anyone I would show it to my sisters. They are younger than me and I want to be a role model for them. I want them to see how important it is for them to think for themselves and to try to be open-minded.”

“The Freedom Tunnel”
After “Knoxville, Tennessee” by Nikki Giovanni
by Sami, Grade 11
 
I always liked the
Ashy, gray time of the year,
When your blood threatens
To freeze
When there is not a single
Soul in the streets to
Witness your presence.
When the traffic lights turn green
But not a single
Car passes by.

Xiao Na Guo

Immigrated to the US from China in 2016 when she was 15.

“Before I came here I studied English, but we only learned how to write and read, not how to speak. In poetry class here I learned the art of the language. English is such a unique language! I learned how you can use words in different ways, how you can arrange them in different lines. When we write poetry we are free to express our feelings and write about our own experiences. This is why I like when we share our work in class.  Sometimes it’s surprising when you write something and it’s not until you read it to others that you see that it’s beautiful.”

“American Dream”
After “America” by Claude McKay
by Xiao Na Guo, Grade 11
 
Because America is the land of opportunity
But economic inequality is growing significantly
 
Although the government provides health care for everyone
There are homeless people in the streets, in the subways and everywhere
 
Although education is provided for all
Some people can’t afford college
 
Although New York City is great

Its subway is old and dirty
Its housing is dead expensive
 
America is rooted with racism
People don’t love each other here
People are against each other because of their skin color
Some fight for the American dream and others just want to stop them
 
It’s America
Overall
I love this competitive place

Maria Gil

Immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic in 2011 when she was 9.

“I love writing poetry because I can put in my poems all the things I’m feeling but can’t tell anybody about.  Sometimes I feel stuck and when I start writing I feel so relieved and free. I think I will always be writing. I may not be a poet but I’ll be a poet for myself.

“It can be hard coming to a new country. I want to tell other immigrants don’t lose hope. I want to tell them to keep pushing forward. Don’t let the news make you feel alone and rejected. This country has a lot of opportunity. You just have to not be afraid.”

“Untitled”
After “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
by Maria Gil, Grade 12
 
Well, I know you didn’t know
The struggle you were going
To face for not having documents.
Nobody played a video for you, so
You could see how your life was going
To change. People never tell you how
The United States really is, they only tell
You good things, but never the reality of
An undocumented person. Every day is gray
And dark because you don’t have loved ones
Nearby to motivate you to keep working hard.
Feeling lost and lonely. Things didn’t get clear because
Applying to jobs and going to interviews and being
Rejected for not having documents, living with an
Uncle that was hopeless, confronting your actual
Situation was stressful because you couldn’t afford

Yourself. Finally you will find a job through a friend,
And work and work and start trusting your boss and
Then he will take advantage as an employer, because
You aren’t legal to the country.

Alp Arabacioglu

Immigrated to the US from Turkey in 2015 when he was 14.

“Going to another country and living there is really hard. But at this school we get lots of help. Nobody cares if you’re from somewhere else or if you’re a different religion. Everybody’s equal. I’ve never had a problem with racism here. In Istanbul I went to school with people from other places, but not like this. There are so many cultures you learn about here, so many languages you hear. It’s really interesting to see how we all live in the same world but have such different experiences in the cultures we come from—the foods, the dances, the music—there are so many different kinds!

“When I write poetry I think about this, or I look back and think about things that happened to me before and try to write about them. Sometimes it’s hard to say what you mean but it’s good to have the freedom to write whatever you want.”

“Just Because I Am
            by Alp Arabacioglu, grade 11
 
Just because I am from Turkey
Doesn’t mean I speak Arabic.
Doesn’t mean that I am Muslim.
And doesn’t mean that I don’t eat turkey.
Just because I am white
Doesn’t mean that I am rich.
Doesn’t mean I live in Manhattan.
And doesn’t mean that I have the best life ever.
Just because I am a man
Does it mean that I am rude?
Does it mean that I break hearts?

Hao Wang

Immigrated to theUS from China in 2018 when he was 16.

“I like to take my time when I’m writing. It’s like traveling around in my mind. The hardest part for me is the vocabulary.  Sometimes I write just for myself, sometimes I write for other people, not for anyone special, just for people who have a normal life, people like us. I think maybe by writing about a normal person’s ideas I can make more of a connection to people.

“The city I come from in China is beautiful. It was a big change the first two months I was here. A few times people called me bad names. I think people fear immigrants because they want to protect their family, and I can accept that. They have no idea they might be wrong, and they might only know people who agree with them.  I’m not the kind of person who only sees one side of an issue. I think the only thing I can do is try to help them, not by talking, but by showing people they don’t have to fear us. Mostly I feel great about being here.”

“The Day I Disappear”
            After “breaking away to the u.s.” by José B. González
            by Hao Wang,Grade 10
 
I close the door
Up to my road
The sun hasn’t awakened yet
Because it’s sad to see me go.
The traffic light isn’t red yet
He will keep going and never care
The leaf is still falling down
It’s dancing to make fun
The car runs slow and gets stopped
The wind goes quick and catches me
Across the street
Crowded and grasses

I just want to say:
Remember me.

About the Author:

Susan Karwoska is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Fellowship in Fiction; a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace residency for emerging artists; and residencies at the Ucross Foundation and at Cummington Community of the Arts. From 2005-2014 she was the editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine and currently serves on its editorial board. She is also on NYFA’s artist advisory board and the board of the New York Writers Coalition. She has written and edited for a variety of publications and organizations, resides in Brooklyn, New York, and is at work on a novel.

Photo: Nitish Meena


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