Documenting Refugee Experiences in Iowa

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During the past academic year, I worked closely with Dr. Destiny Crider to come up with a research proposal for this project, an outline of what we believed we would accomplish, and goals for what we both hoped to gain. At the time, this was geared toward being on campus, with access to the collections and conducting interviews in person. When I heard we were being sent home because of the pandemic late last year, my heart sank because I did not know if this project could still happen. I was so excited when I got an email asking if this project could be done virtually and I jumped at the chance.

The original goal of this summer project was to continue research that focused on refugees who resettled in northeast Iowa following the Vietnam War. With Covid-19, we were unable to connect in person with many of the Hmong, Tai Dam, and Vietnamese refugees who once lived in Decorah and the surrounding area. Although we continued talking with local sponsors and families, we also expanded our scope to collect a wider breadth of information about the organizations in Iowa and the upper Midwest who are actively doing work to support refugee resettlement or immigrant communities. 

This change in plan provided a new direction for our research that allowed us to see how resettlement of today compares with the experiences of the 1970s and 1980s. All of our interviews and research was conducted remotely. We interviewed people from Iowa, Minnesota, and some who have moved away and now live on the west and east coasts of the U.S.

Research Made Possible Via Zoom

The interviews I conducted this summer fit into three topical areas. The first included the resettlement of refugees into Iowa during the 1970s-1980s. We conducted interviews with Hmong and Tai Dam people, and a few of the sponsors that supported refugee resettlement from Winneshiek county.

Some of the older participants told stories and remembered life in Vietnam and Laos, but the younger people were born in refugee camps and have little experience of life outside of the United States. The younger group shared how their refugee heritage has made an impact on their professional lives. Both groups work for non-profit organizations dedicated to immigration and refugee services. 

Next, we talked with them about their involvement in the non-profit organizations. The Center for Hmong Studies is a museum and research organization and part of the Concordia University in St. Paul. The school supports a minor in Hmong Studies and provides academic and library resources for research on the Hmong experience in China, Southeast Asia, and the U.S. We also talked with a representative of the Tai Studies Center in Des Moines, which aims to preserve Tai culture and help Tai people. Both organizations work to support their refugee communities by documenting history, telling personal stories of their experiences, and helping younger generations learn about their people and offering support to those still struggling in Southeast Asia (especially northern Vietnam).

A third area we explored was on the programs that help refugees who have arrived in Iowa and Minnesota more recently. EMBARC of Iowa (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center) is an organization helping refugees from Burma resettle in Iowa. We found it to be similar to Northeast Iowa Refugee Coordination Services that was located in Decorah in the 1970s-1990s. Their mission is to help with paperwork to navigate residency and social services, and provide skills in transition to U.S. life. We were invited to speak with a few recent immigrants from Burma who reside in Iowa. We learned about the ethnic and political strife in Burma today, and what processes and pathways they had to navigate to be allowed to resettle here. We also spoke with a recent Luther graduate who has been working with refugee resettlement in the Twin Cities for the last year, and what it is like to help newcomers in the city.

An Exceptional Luther Experience

While this research project has looked different than what we originally proposed, I’ve loved every minute of it. In conducting these interviews, I’ve learned how to help prepare for and guide the discussions. I’ve discovered the importance of following up and being grateful for the time and willingness for these individuals to share their personal and often painful experiences. One of my favorite parts of conducting this research project was how grateful the participants were after I interviewed them since it gave them the opportunity to share their experiences and have someone listen and learn more about their lives and culture. While I’d heard about this from past student researchers, I didn’t understand how touching this would be as a first-hand experience.  

This research project is a highlight of my college career so far even if it happened during the summer after my first year and was in the midst of a pandemic. This taught me that while projects may not always go as planned, if you are flexible and open to what seems like outrageous ideas, you will be amazed by the outcome.

Deters interviews an individual who was originally from northwest Vietnam and currently lives in Florida.

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