Documentary uses refugee stories to connect cultures and shape learning

October 19, 2021

Michigan State University’s Carrie Symons wants to amplify the voices of refugees and immigrants in the United States. She hopes a new documentary and free complementary teaching materials will help the next generation of students better understand the realities refugees face—and use that information to better shape our global future.

“This film and teaching materials recognize there is a negative, and often political, rhetoric around refugees. The materials serve as a counter-narrative to that,” said Symons, an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education. “We want to challenge assumptions and biases around refugees, immigrants and migrants and recognize our shared humanity. The film underscores that we’re all just people.”

Animation of GLOBE participants creating artwork by Charlotte Nana.

Symons co-directed, co-produced and wrote “The Stories Project,” which follows 11 mentors in the GLOBE Camp at Lansing’s Refugee Development Center. They discuss their experiences and how the community and country can move forward. GLOBE, or Gaining Learning Opportunities through Better English, is a long-running program that includes lessons and field trips for refugees based around growing English skills while maintaining roots to their cultures.

“[GLOBE] is an opportunity for refugee newcomers from all across the globe to come together and learn with one another in their new community,” said Erika Brown-Binion, director of the RDC. “Most are new arrivals to Lansing and are still getting to know the English language, navigating life in America and learning about their new community.”

Symons hopes as educators and students engage with the film in classrooms, students will learn more about who refugees are, why they came to the U.S. and how to be more inclusive and welcoming in their communities.

Global challenges, local support

According to the UNHCR*—the UN Refugee Agency—more than 26 million around the globe have received official status as refugees, or people who have been forced to flee from their homes due to war, violence, persecution or other dangerous circumstances. Around one million children were born as refugees.

Even fewer—around 1% total—have the chance to resettle. Historically, about 600 have settled in the Lansing area each year, according to the RDC.

Carrie Symons

“Carrie has been an incredibly valuable partner to work with at the Refugee Development Center,” added Brown-Binion. “She has added value to our programming and is truly invested in [our] work and mission. She is dedicated to working hand in hand with community partners, like RDC, to develop and grow programming that is meaningful to the families we serve.”

“The Stories Project” has been two years in the making, and features one aspect of the larger partnership between Symons and the RDC that includes research and outreach. Symons received a grant in 2017 to explore the effectiveness of GLOBE (read the findings in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 2019), and used additional funding to expand on that work, including with this film.

Though the film, which premiered at the RDC in May 2021, was initially intended to be promoted at film festivals and, later, disseminated in the community—Symons and fellow collaborators felt the real work and impact was for the community. They quickly shifted their focus to schools and other educational organizations, including with the teaching materials unveiled in August.

GLOBE participants and mentors gather in a discussion at the Refugee Development Center. Symons, in white, sits near the white board. Photo: Leo Vosburgh, taken pre-2020

As a collaborator with RDC and a global educator, Symons aims to better support participants’ education and development, and serve as an advocate for their social, emotional and academic well-being.

The impact of that work is evident throughout the film, which debuted in May 2021.

It’s seen in the smiling faces, the laughter, the art featured. And it’s heard in the voices and stories told, like that of Halo, who originates from Sudan. The film opens with him recounting the harrowing journey of when he and his family were fleeing home.

“Some … say bringing refugees is horrible to their country. I don’t know why they say this,” he says later in the film. “For me, bringing a refugee or immigrant to a new country is a good idea—because [we] need to save their lives.”

When Halo first arrived in the U.S., he had a desire to continue education. Unfortunately, he was too old to enroll in local public schools. However, through the RDC and the Global Institute of Lansing, he took English as a second language classes and eventually earned his high school diploma. Halo now attends LCC with dreams of going to medical school and becoming a doctor.

Another mentor featured in the film, Marta, explained why those who have the opportunity to resettle in the U.S. are grateful.

“The United States could be seen as a country that gives help, that gives dreams,” says the Colombia native. “[It is] a country of opportunity that doesn’t close doors to anyone.”

Leo Samuels Vosburgh, an MSU College of Communication Arts & Sciences alumni, served as the film’s co-director, co-producer, editor and cinematographer. Charlotte Nana, who graduated from MSU’s Residential College in the Arts & Humanities in 2021, provided animation and graphics. Ben Shirley composed the music for the film, with mixing and editing provided by Dylan Kissel, currently a Media and Information master’s student in CAS. 

Funding for the film, made in partnership with the Refugee Development Center, was provided by an MSU Residential College in the Arts & Humanities (RCAH) Network for Global Civic Engagement grant, an MSU Humanities and Arts Research Program-Production grant and with supplementary funding from MSU’s Department of Teacher Education.

GLOBE participants blow bubbles during an event at the Erickson Hall Kiva. Photo: Leo Vosburgh, taken pre-2020

The seven modules featured as an accompaniment to the film give educators and learners opportunities to watch the film and have critical, social justice-based dialogues on refugee and immigrant stereotypes and deepen understanding on why individuals may resettle in the U.S. The modules can be used in K-12 classrooms as well as in teacher preparation programs; Symons will be sharing the film and presenting a lesson to MSU Teacher Preparation Program students for the first time later this fall.

The film and modules are an opportunity to learn from one another, Symons says.

“So much of who we are and how we see the world and what we dream of can be tied to where we come from,” she explained. “These materials honor differences, but also allow us to see how very much alike we are.”

Bring “The Stories Project” to your community

If you’d like to arrange a screening for your community, school or organization, fill out the form on the film’s website, where related teaching materials are free and available for download:

Read more on the history of Symons’ work with the Refugee Development Center in a 2019 issue of The Engaged Scholar.

*UNHCR data referenced from the Refugee Data Finder. At time of writing, the data referenced in this story had last been updated as of June 18, 2021. The data was retrieved on October 13, 2021. Check the Refugee Data Finder for the most accurate statistics; they change frequently.