Faculty Spotlight

Exploring Immigrant Stories: Being, Longing, Surviving and Thriving

A close up of the United States on a globe with a variety of push pins marking different locations
Photo by Joey Csunyo on Unsplash

This is a conversation between Hugo Kamya, Professor in the Simmons University School of Social Work and Associate Director of the Center for Innovation in Clinical Social Work and and Ivy Waikwa, an undergraduate student majoring in Psychology.

Can you tell me about the current project you are working on for the Hazel Dick Leonard faculty fellowship?

Dr. Kamya: The title of my project is "Exploring Immigrant Stories: Being, Belonging, Longing, Surviving, Thriving." It delves into themes of race, fear, pain, resilience, survival, and success, among others. I see this project as an exploration of how individuals construct their narratives. We're all shaped by our stories, and I find myself at the intersection of many of them. These narratives define who I am and where I fit in. They're woven together by the threads of others, encompassing stories of home, identity, belonging, and longing. They're also about connections and encounters. So, this project examines stories that span across individuals, places, and time, exploring themes of perseverance, survival, thriving, and how people navigate issues of hope, courage, and the will to live.

That's a comprehensive explanation. What inspired you to start this project?

Dr. Kamya: I drew inspiration from the work of Peabody Award-winning journalist Michele Norris, particularly her book "The Grace of Silence," which explores what Americans think about race and identity. Her work motivated me to pose similar questions to immigrants about their own perceptions and experiences. I wanted to understand how they view themselves and how others perceive them, examining their stories of being, belonging, longing, surviving, and thriving. So, I sent out a prompt for the immigrant project, asking individuals to share their stories in six words, and I've received numerous responses to that prompt.

Was there a specific moment while reading the book when you realized you wanted to delve deeper into this topic, or did the idea come later?

Dr. Kamya: The prompt itself intrigued me from the start. Even as I was reading Norris's book, I found myself captivated by the responses she received, particularly from immigrants contemplating what it means for them to navigate their immigrant identity. While Norris's focus was primarily on race and identity, my interest in immigration led me to delve deeper into the immigrant experience and their perceptions of self-understanding.

Would you say your interest in these issues sparked before or after reading the book?

Dr. Kamya: I've always been interested in these issues. What intrigued me about reading her book was the simplicity of the prompt she used, which garnered significant interest. So, I'd say it happened in both directions. I've long been fascinated by these topics, and I'd be happy to delve into more detail.

How have stories of home, identity, and belonging influenced your understanding of who we are and where we fit in?

Dr. Kamya: Stories of home have deeply connected me to my roots, shaping my identity and sense of belonging. Growing up, my parents used storytelling to convey important values, traditions, and cultural heritage. These stories instilled wisdom and helped me see myself as a product of my culture and upbringing.

Transitioning back to the topic of immigration, what do you see as the main challenges immigrants face when exploring their identity?

Dr. Kamya: Immigrants face numerous challenges as they navigate the process of seeking a new home. These challenges raise questions about their identity and are often associated with the complexities of migration experiences. They endure separation from loved ones, possessions, and familiar environments during the migration phase. Additionally, the prolonged transition periods and the need to integrate into new cultures during resettlement pose significant obstacles. Many migrants find themselves disconnected from their social networks in their countries of origin and must seek out new connections and adapt to different norms and values. The immigration process involves multiple losses, including the loss of familiar environments, languages, social support systems, and even aspects of their identity and socioeconomic status. This can lead to a sense of rootlessness, both physically and psychologically, in their daily lives.

How do you envision your project impacting the lives of those who engage with your work?

Dr. Kamya: My goal is for readers to gain a deeper understanding of immigrants' experiences by delving into their narratives of self-identity and belonging. I hope these stories resonate with readers, evoking feelings of connection, longing, resilience, and empowerment. Ultimately, I aim for both immigrants and readers to embrace their stories and find empowerment in sharing and owning their narratives.

Is there anything else you'd like people to know about your project?

Dr. Kamya: Well, the subtext to this project is really to unearth stories others tell about us as immigrants. I think that stories can build healing spaces and also explore issues of power and powerlessness. They can also communicate certain truths, and I believe that in this project my plan to explore stories that immigrants tell or have been told about them will surface. I hope to explore issues of power and powerlessness, asking questions about how a story gets told, who tells it and who sanctions it. So in a way, drawing from story and story metaphor, I will explore how stories communicate these truths or even untruths. I'll try to interrogate and examine embedded messages in these stories using what I like to call a decolonial or even anti-colonial lens as part of this ongoing project for this book contract with Norton. So in some ways the book is part memoir and part an act of resistance because I see that immigrants find themselves asking themselves many, many questions. I don't know about you but as I was thinking about this question, I was wondering about questions such as, where do you come from and about your name. There will always be questions about how you pronounce your name.

Edited for length and clarity.

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Ivy Waikwa