I’m an American-born child of refugees, and I grew up hearing fragments of my parents’ stories. I didn’t know them as people, I just knew them as parents. I had never asked to hear their full life’s story, until one day, my dad had a heart attack. And, like any real wake-up call, it shook me.
Thankfully, my dad recovered, and that became my chance to learn more about their lives. I visited my parents for lunch and recorded a conversation I’d never had with them before.
- What was it like growing up in Vietnam?
- What were their childhood dreams?
- What was it like living/fighting in the war?
- What were their toughest times as refugees?
- What are the most important lessons from their lives?
- How do they want to be remembered?
A handful of questions led to a few hours of unforgettable storytelling. [Read a snippet.].
A lot of their words stuck with me, but this thought in particular stayed in my mind: They said they’d always wanted to have this conversation, they just didn’t know how or when to start it.
Having that dialogue with my parents inspired me to launch REFUGENE—a project that celebrates stories told by refugee diasporas through interviews and apparel. Stories of loss, struggle, resilience, adaptation, hope, happiness, and more. Stories that help us to understand ourselves better and to find common ground with others.
As a father myself, I want to teach my children about our heritage. I want my future grandchildren to feel a sense of connection to their roots. It’s our stories that will guide future generations. That’s why we must preserve our family histories.
I started presenting workshops to encourage and equip others to record their families’ stories, and in July 2018, I participated in a leadership conference hosted by the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations (UNAVSA). After my session, UNAVSA’s Director of Civic Engagement—Kevin Le—proposed a collaboration on what eventually became The Family Stories Project.
Our goal with The Family Stories Project is to publish a book of fifty stories told by the overseas Vietnamese community by the end of 2020. This is a collaborative effort between REFUGENE and UNAVSA to inspire young and old generations to record their family stories. While all stories will also be shared online, there is something special about the permanence of a publication. This beautiful, hardcover book is meant to be a tangible artifact that will be passed from generation to generation.
Kevin and I are both passionate about this collection, specifically because it will be made of stories told by our community. Here’s why: When it comes to history-writing, we often think of formal institutions responsible for preserving our heritage—libraries, museums, schools, historical sites, etc. How do stateless communities continue to organize and give context to our histories? We believe publishing this book is a powerful—and achievable—step towards preserving our heritage for future generations.
After collecting stories for several months, we’ve learned a few important lessons:
- If we don’t initiate these conversations now, then untold stories may be lost forever. I, personally, missed the opportunity to have these conversations with my grandparents before they passed. I could have, but the idea hadn’t crossed my mind. Please, don’t miss your chance to have these conversations with those closest to you. Let this project be your catalyst.
- It can be uncomfortable starting these conversations for several reasons. There are language barriers, the fear of bringing back old traumas, and the awkwardness of initiating this heavier conversation. To help you overcome these challenges, we created a storykit with 62 conversation starters in English and Vietnamese, maps to trace journeys, and tips to effectively interview your storyteller. You can view it on our site or download the PDF version.
- Some storytellers don’t want to relive their past, but others have surprised us with the stories they’ve shared. Their words are emotional, unfiltered, and teeming with wisdom. I think it speaks to the intention of this project to invite storytellers to write our history in our own words. My advice to interviewers: Be curious about details. Most storytellers want you to dig deeper, and they need your questions to guide them. But it goes without saying to always be respectful of the topics they decline to talk about. Storytellers: Take this opportunity to say what you’ve always wanted to say—your words may inspire generations yet to be born.
To me, our heritage is a portrait, and every story is a brushstroke. We hope this book becomes a resource that honestly reflects and preserves our collective history and wisdom.
GOOD NEWS: You can still share your stories with this project!
We originally planned to close story submissions on May 31, 2020, but due to delays caused by COVID-19, we’ve extended our submission end date to October 1, 2020 and plan to publish books by the end of this year. You can pre-order the book now with all profits from pre-order sales supporting the UNAVSA non-profit.
If you’re interested in interviewing your relatives, submitting your stories, or want to get involved in other ways, please visit www.refugene.com/REFUGENExUNAVSA. It would be our honor to hear and preserve your stories.
Jimmy Vu Patel-Nguyen is the founder of REFUGENE—a project that celebrates stories told by refugee diasporas through interviews and apparel. He designs culturally-inspired clothing and screen prints every shirt by hand.