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    “The five words that describe my immigration story are empty, powerful, scared, dangerous and risky.” That’s from Lian, a student who last year was enrolled in Iroquois High School’s Accelerate to Graduate (A2G) program. Lian is one of 30 students in the program to share immigration stories (his about coming from Malaysia in 2016) through a project with the Speed Art Museum.

    The students have immigrated from Somalia, Cuba, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Brazil. They range in age from 18 to 21, speak English as a second language and are at risk of aging out of the traditional high school track. A2G is a one-year accelerated program, the first in JCPS, to prepare students to either enter the workforce or attend college. “In the classroom, the students had many conversations about why so many people in America are against people from different countries,” says Shannon Karol, director of education at the Speed,  “so we wanted to give them a platform where they could explore some of those ideas in a safe and welcoming place.” (The Speed and A2G are doing the project again this year and plan to expand into other schools.) Karol told the students to think about their immigration stories, then to find artwork in the museum’s collection related to those experiences. The students contributed their responses to a booklet or made an audio recording (available on SoundCloud). Seventeen students recorded their stories, some in English and some in both English and their native language. One word can be found in every account: scared.

    Karol says one story that sticks out in her mind is of a student named Jonathan who immigrated from Congo. “He responded to this portrait of a woman named Mary Daniel, a Kentucky native, and talked about (how) the clothing she was wearing reminded him of the clothes his mom would wear,” she says. Nishal Rai wrote about how Waiting, an oil painting by modernist Marc Chagall, reminded him of the village where he grew up. “When I saw the painting, I felt like I know the painting place,” Nishal wrote. “After that, I imagine I’m playing the hiding game with my friend. In the painting, some places look like our refugee camp.” In a recording, Neima Hssen Abdu explained why people immigrate by quoting the work of British poet Warsan Shire: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of the shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.”

    This originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “Home Is Where the Art Is.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: Pexels.com

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    About Katie Molck

    Loretta Lynn is the best country music singer of all time and if you don't like pickled foods, you can leave.

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