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Family Stories as Secret Text for Immigrants

The New York Times (New York, NY) , March 15, 2009


Though children of immigrants may generally know the broad arc of their parents’ lives, the details — of lives lived before America, of hardships in leaving and struggles to adapt — are frequently lost in the rush of assimilation, a time of forging ahead rather than looking back.

And so it is that each year, when Nancy Foner, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, requires the students in her course “The Peopling of New York” to interview a close relative about the family’s recent history, the discoveries are often startling, to the students as well as to their classmates.

In a class where most of the students are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, the assignment is not simply an exercise in historical inquiry but also an intense exploration into their own lives and the sacrifices of their forebears.

This year, Aleksandr Akulov, 19, found out that his mother had given up a promising career in mechanical engineering in her native Russia to move to New York, where she found work at a laundromat. Ilirjan Gjonbalaj, 18, discovered that his Albanian parents were smuggled into the country from their home in Montenegro. And Kanushree Jain, 19, learned that her parents were treated with outright hostility in New York by their fellow immigrants from India because they were new arrivals and could not speak English.

“There’s kind of an image of immigrant kids born and raised in America as being kind of ashamed of their parents,” said Dr. Foner, who has written widely about immigrants in New York. “But these students are proud of their parents and their parents’ experiences. In some ways, the proudest students are those who had the most difficult time.”

Subjects Covered: education, personal storytelling

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