By David Bearinger
Bol Gai Deng was born in a Sudanese village so remote that, he says, no one there knew they were living in a place called Sudan. Life revolved around tending cattle and fishing the nearby rivers. He remembers watching the stars at night and wondering about the world.
War came. Bol was kidnapped when he was seven years old and sold into slavery, becoming one of the thousands of “Lost Boys” of Sudan. Four years later, he escaped his captors and made his way to safety across the Egyptian border.
He spent time in a U.N. refugee camp and was eventually resettled permanently in Richmond, Virginia with the help of Church World Service and a local Christian congregation.
He learned English, studied American government at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was inspired by stories of the U.S. Founding Fathers.
In 2018, Bol is making a credible run for President of South Sudan, campaigning from an office in Henrico County. Many people believe that if elections were held in South Sudan today, he would win. He credits his intense desire to serve his home country and its people, and to help instill democracy in South Sudan, to what he’s learned about the founding of the United States and to his own experience in Virginia.
Bol’s journey is one of more than two dozen “immigration stories” being collected by Virginia Humanities, working in partnership with the Library of Virginia and with support from Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration/American Evolution.
The project involves in-depth interview conversations with immigrants and refugees now living in all parts of Virginia, from the Northern suburbs to the Shenandoah Valley to the Eastern Shore. The focus is on immigration from the mid-1970s to the present, and on first-person accounts.
Interviewees range in age from 21 to 78 and represent a wide diversity of background and experience. Some have come to this country seeking new opportunity; others fleeing war, hunger, or political persecution.
They include a high school Spanish teacher, a professional photographer, a computer engineer, two physicians, a community college student, a state delegate, an administrative assistant, a college professor, a custodian, a graduate student in plant pathology, business owners, agricultural workers, a state Cabinet secretary; the list goes on.
And they also come from countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet republics, reflecting insofar as possible the complex portrait of immigration in the Commonwealth since the end of the Vietnam War.
The interviews, averaging about 90 minutes each, explore the circumstances that led these men and women (and children and families) to leave their homes; arrival in the United States; challenges and obstacles—education, language, finding community; identity and assimilation; culture and tradition; holding on and letting go; separation and reunion of families; religious faith; what it means to be an American (and a Virginian); and hopes and concerns about the future.
The emphasis is on personal stories, not on politics or immigration policy.
One goal of the project is to create a digital archive of primary sources that will grow over time, well beyond the scope of this initial group of interviews. The archive, accessible in early 2019, will serve both as a record and a resource that can be used by teachers and students, scholars, journalists, and others, now and far into the future.
We also hope this composite “portrait” of immigration will help all Virginians to better understand the complexity of the immigrant experience, both in aggregate and at the personal level.
And finally, the project is designed to give immigrants and refugees in Virginia a means to tell their own stories in their own words.
The interviews are filmed at broadcast quality, and excerpts will be used by the Library of Virginia in a major new exhibit called The New Virginians that will open in December, 2018. A traveling version will circulate statewide during 2019 and beyond; and—again with support from the 2019 Commemoration/American Evolution—Virginia Humanities will offer mini-grants to the exhibit host sites, to develop companion programs that explore “immigration stories” in their own communities.
Interviews are continuing through the spring of 2018. Fourteen interviews have been conducted so far.
Isabel Castillo (Mexico). Came to the United States as a child. She earned a Masters Degree in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University and was awarded an honorary doctorate for her advocacy work on behalf of immigrants’ rights.
Julia Garcia (Bolivia). Teaches Spanish at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington. She is a leader in the preservation of her native Quechua language and the folk traditions of Bolivia, especially dance.
Jose Francisco Garcia (El Salvador). Came to the U.S. to study agriculture. He is currently a graduate student in plant pathology at Virginia Tech’s Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Painter, Virginia.
Elizabeth Guzman (Peru). Arrived in the U.S. as a single parent. She currently represents the 31st District (Prince William and Fauquier Counties) in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
Xang Mimi Ho (Laos). The child of Thai and Vietnamese parents, she came to Northern Virginia for medical treatment, studied photography, and now works, teaches, and travels internationally as a professional photographer.
Aliaa Khidr (Egypt). Trained in Egypt as a medical doctor, she has practiced and conducted research in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia. She is retired from medical practice and teaches Arabic at the University of Virginia.
Sally Imran (Iraq). Fled from Baghdad to Turkey with her mother and brothers following her father’s disappearance in 2007. The family was re-settled in Harrisonburg, and Sally is currently a student at Blue Ridge Community College, working two full-time jobs.
Pryalal Karmarkar (Bangladesh). Came to the U.S. on a “lottery visa,” joined the Marine Corps and earned a Masters Degree in Computer Engineering. He is co-founder of Prio Bangla, a major cultural arts festival in Northern Virginia.
Nhi Le (Vietnam). Escaped by boat from Vietnam in 1981 while undergoing cancer treatment. She is the founder of a Vietnamese literary society and center for the preservation of Vietnamese culture in Northern Virginia.
Dr. Juan Montero (Philippines). Came to the U.S. to practice medicine and has been honored for his leadership in health care, human service and philanthropy. He is the founder of the Chesapeake Care Free Clinic and Montero Medical Missions, which provides free medical services worldwide.
Jacques Mushagasha (Democratic Republic of Congo). A former teacher in Congo and Burundi, he became a war refugee in Zambia where he worked as a U.N. interpreter. He is a leader in the Congloese community in Harrisonburg and founder and current president of the Alliance for Good Government and Peace in Africa.
Atif Qarni (Pakistan). A former middle school teacher in Prince William County, he is currently Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Pedro Sanchez and Loida Tema (Mexico; Guatemala). Began life in the U.S. as migrant agricultural workers. Pedro is now employed in the poultry industry on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Elena Zemmel (Tajikistan). Trained as a physicist (in spectrometry), she and her family were granted asylum in the U.S. in the 1990s. She currently works in the Dept. of East Asian Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Virginia.
At least a dozen more are planned in this first phase of the project.
These men and women and thousands like them who have come to Virginia as immigrants and refugees are enriching the state culturally, economically, and in many other ways. They represent the story of Virginia and the ideals of democracy, diversity and opportunity that are the heart of Virginia’s contributions to the “American Evolution.”
We are grateful that they are sharing their stories with us—and with their fellow Virginians.