Collaborating to Preserve Immigrant Voices

June 8, 2021

By Shawna Gandy

The Immigrant Story is a private nonprofit organization that Sankar Raman created in 2017. Its mission is to “foster empathy and build a more inclusive community by sharing immigrant stories. Pictured here are six of the interviewees whose stories are now archived on OHS Digital Collections. Top: Maria Garcia, Felix Songolo, Dominic Vu Nguyen. Bottom: Ivan Hernandez, Rachel Nardos, Fowzia Ibrahim. Image courtesy of Sankar Raman/The Immigrant Story.

When I met Sankar Raman, founder, director, and driving force behind The Immigrant Story, his conviction that stories could unite and heal deeply impressed me. Filled with passion and robed in humility, warmth, and respect, in less than two years, Raman had molded his creative and positive response to xenophobia into an impressive volunteer enterprise that uses storytelling to create empathy and understanding. Now, more than fifty talented volunteers contribute to The Immigrant Story’s efforts to gather stories through personal interviews with immigrants and refugees and disseminate them through biographical sketches on as well as exhibits, live storytelling events, and podcasts.

By the time we met in early 2019, Raman had already captured several dozen interviews as audio files on his cell phone. After learning from him how the project started and about the nature of the interviews and wide range of subjects, I asked a simple, leading question: What are you doing to preserve those recordings?

Not surprisingly, Raman’s breakneck interviewing pace left him little time to think about long term preservation of audio files. Given his sense of urgency and the way the project evolved, it’s easy to understand why. The interviews initially served as voice-notes for brief written biographical sketches and were not conceived of as an end unto themselves. As the project evolved, Raman developed their interviewing process, obtained better recording equipment, and started thinking about new uses for the interviews, such as editing them for the podcast series The Immigrant Story recently introduced, Many Roads to Here.

“Many Roads to Here” podcast webpage showing artwork from a May 2021 episode. Image courtesy of Sankar Raman, The Immigrant Story.
In October 2020, The Immigrant Story, in partnership with the Portland Radio Project, launched “Many Roads to Here,” a podcast series that tells the stories of immigrants in their own voices. This artwork was created for the May 2021 episode. Image courtesy of Sankar Raman/The Immigrant Story.

Looking through my archivist’s eyeglasses, I recognized the enduring value of The Immigrant Story’s recorded interviews as primary sources for historical inquiry that reflect the rich diversity of our state and demonstrate our global interconnectedness. I also understood that documenting these stories requires relationship building, trust, and many hours of hard work and coordination. This dedicated and skilled team of volunteers reaches deep into the community to record stories that reflect the lived experiences of fellow Oregonians on journeys from their countries of origin to our state. Through their stories, we also learn how they’ve navigated challenges and opportunities in the United States, especially in here in Oregon, what has sustained them, and how their experiences have shaped them. Each and every story is unique, and as a whole, they contribute to our understanding of history in all its complexity, which is at the heart of the Oregon Historical Society’s (OHS) mission.

Olive Bukuru. Photograph by Jim Lommasson.
Olive Bukuru was born in Makamba, Burundi, in 1996. When she was six months old, her family fled to Tanzania to escape ethnic violence. In 2007, her family resettled in Newberg, Oregon. The Immigrant Story documented her story in a December 2018 interview, which is archived on OHS Digital Collections. Bukuru’s story is also featured in “I Am My Story: Voices of Hope,” on exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society from May 14 through August 22, 2021. Photograph by Jim Lommasson.

While long term preservation and public access to historical resources fell outside of The Immigrant Story’s scope, it landed squarely within ours. Readers of this blog and followers of OHS know of the research library’s efforts over the past six years to recruit skilled staff and build a robust digital preservation and public access infrastructure. We use those resources to digitize and share OHS collections for broad access via OHS Digital Collections and other avenues, including the library’s digital history websites, OHS publications, educational materials, public programs, and exhibitions.

Community groups play a strong role in documenting local history. In fact, many of the library’s collections come to OHS through community and grassroots organizations. We were thrilled when The Immigrant Story agreed to archive their interviews with us and are grateful for the assistance they lend in making the process go smoothly.

Before the interviews come to us, The Immigrant Story ensures that each interviewee has the choice to have their interviews archived at OHS. We are sensitive to the risks immigrants and their families sometimes take in sharing their stories and are conscientious about following their wishes as to when and if an interview can be safely shared. The Immigrant Story volunteers also gather and log information about each interview that helps our oral history librarian catalog them accurately before they are included in the digital preservation system, the OHS Digital Vault, and made accessible through OHS Digital Collections.

I urge you to visit The Immigrant Story’s latest exhibit in our museum through August 22, 2021, I Am My Story: Voices of Hope, to see in person the beautiful and moving presentation of the stories of six courageous young women from Africa. You can hear more of their stories on  The Immigrant Story collection on OHS Digital Collections, where we are honored to share the full recordings from five of the women featured in the exhibit. They are astonishing.

Johana Amani’s birth certificate. Photograph by Jim Lommasson.
In this photograph featured in “I Am My Story: Voices of Hope,” Johana Amani writes: “I lost my birth certificate while fleeing for safety from my home country Congo, DRC. I never thought I would lose my sense of belonging and identity with it.” Amani’s interview with The Immigrant Story is also archived on OHS Digital Collections. Photograph by Jim Lommasson.

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