In the summer of 2013, Boise State University offered an interdisciplinary documentary film class, culminating with the production of a documentary titled Latinos in Treasure Valley, Idaho. Claudia Peralta, former chair of the Department Bilingual Education at Boise State and Fulvio Orsitto, director of Italian and Italian American Studies at California State University Chico along with Italian producer and film maker Fabio Caramaschi, focused the second iteration of the class, in the summer of 2014, on the refugee experience, and the impact of refugee resettlement in the local community. The resulting film, Starting Over Again: The Refugee Experience in Boise, Idaho, can be viewed below. In this essay, Peralta describes the pedagogy used in the class. — Eds.
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Teaching with a moral lens encourages the use of pedagogies that affirm human possibilities instead of limitations. In an effort to provide students with the opportunity to question and, at some level, face and hear the realities of refugee participants, we decided to avail ourselves of enlightened pedagogy. Enlightened pedagogy is a term coined by Dr. Patricia Whang and the author in 2005 at Cal State Monterey Bay. This pedagogical approach, informed by contemporary Western conceptions of Buddhism, is grounded in the belief that “the method is mindfulness, the expression is compassion and the essence is wisdom,” as defined by Joseph Goldstein in his book One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.
“Mindfulness is the capacity of being present in the here and now,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes. Buddhist traditions have been developing practical lessons that cultivate mindfulness and awareness, lessons that effectively transform blindly suffering students into insightful and caring human beings who understand suffering, its causes, and its contexts and who subsequently work hard to overcome their own and others’ suffering. The first practical lesson was created on the first day of class by asking the students the question: “Why do we care about refugees?”
This question provided the opportunity to think about the here and now, the “Self” and the “Other,” and to reflect on the kind of commitment and care we should devote to others. To be mindful is to be present, open and aware of what you are doing and of what is happening around you; it is also to be in touch with feelings and emotions of the moment. View the 2013 class film on YouTube. We were not only asking the students to reflect on what they knew about refugees and the refugee community in Boise, but also to confront their fears and prejudices.
All of a sudden, when three refugee students in the class — two from Bosnia and one from Iran — answered the question “Why do we care about refugees?” the discussion shifted from an abstract idea to a concrete one. As professors, we fully understood the repercussions that this question might have on the refugee students in the class but — since we believe that the best way to understand the suffering of others is to hear their stories of hardship, courage, struggle and perseverance — we wanted to benefit from their backgrounds in order to create a sincere dynamic between students. This process allowed students who were not refugees to hear about the oppression others encountered in their home countries, and to share some of the agony of dislocation, the dissonance and deprivations of resettlement and the traumas of readjustment.
Moreover, we wanted students to understand the importance of compassion and care. The word compassion derives from the Latin cum patior, meaning, “to suffer, undergo and stand in solidarity with others” (Gail Straub, 2000) or, as Pema Chödrön defines it, “our ability to feel the pain that we share with others.” Asking why we care was also a way of encouraging students to inquire about refugees’ diverse points of view. Compassion is not possible without understanding and understanding is not possible if we do not take the time to listen deeply, to look deeply and to feel empathy for the experiences of someone else. For more, see the 2014 book by Peralta, Orsitto and Caramaschi: Film and Education: Capturing Bilingual Communities.
Acknowledging the suffering of another is ultimately a profound act and one that is immediately felt by the other person. Thus, as the students acknowledged and paid appropriate respect to the suffering of their peers, they were a step closer to authentic compassion. We also included activities labeled mindful reading, mindful viewing and mindful reporting, per Adarkar & Keiser’s 2007 article “The Buddha in the Classroom,” which help students learn and identify suffering that affects world populations, all of whom were represented in Boise.
The opportunity to understand otherness began when students were involved in interviewing refugees during the 4th of July Parade, at work sites, at the Saturday farmer’s market, at the community gardens, at their homes, but especially when they were listening to the responses of the interviews in the studio and in the classroom. For many of the students, this was their first opportunity to question refugees and hear their stories. However, the interviews conducted in the studio and in the classroom were the ones that provided the space to engage in “deep listening” while watching the refugees smile, cry or simply reflect pensively as they were retelling their stories.
The students began to talk about the connections among all people, reflecting on what happened in their particular corner of the world, and how that impacted the life of others and the life of the community. As understood from a Buddhist viewpoint, wisdom is the ability to realize the nature of a phenomenon, as the Dalai Lama suggests. Hearing and seeing the reality of the refugee experience fractured students’ constructed realities as it raised their levels of compassion.
The 1951 Refugee Convention describes a refugee as someone “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, members of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Asylum-seekers are people who are outside their country of nationality or their usual country of residence and who apply to the government of the country they are in for recognition as a refugee as well as permission to stay, should they be recognized. In 2014, 51 million people were refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. 51 million is more than any time since World War II.
In 2010, the United States admitted over 69,926 refugees from 53 countries. More than half were originally from either Iraq or Burma (Bureau of population, refugees and migration, 2014). The median age of all 2013 arrivals was 25 years and ranged from 19 years for arrivals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Burundi to 35 years of age for arrivals from Cuba and Iran. In 2013, 45.95 percent of all arriving refugees were female and 54.05 percent of all arriving refugees were male (Bureau of population, refugees and migration, 2014).
Idaho’s history as a refugee community started with Gov. John Evans, who established the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program to support refugee resettlement from Southeast Asia in 1975. Ever since then Idaho has been a resettlement area. During the 1980s, political or religious refugees mainly came from the communist-dominated Southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and from Eastern Europe (Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine). In the 1990s, more than 5,000 refugees came from European countries, the majority coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, because of civil war and ethnic cleansing forces. In the 2000s, they came from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Russia. Others came from Somalia, Sudan and Liberia, and fewer from East Asia, Latin America and the Near East. The Idaho Office of Refugees reports that between 2001 and 2011, 5,341 refugees arrived in Idaho. 1,798 refugees were from Near East/South Asia; 1, 569 from Europe/Central Asia; 1,446 from Africa; 453 from East Asia and 75 from Latin America/Caribbean countries.
Even though refugees are part of the student population at schools, colleges and universities (and are often present at the Saturday farmer’s market in downtown Boise), a large part of the local population knows very little about them. Moreover, if one drives around town, even though there are pockets where refugees are visible, they remain mostly invisible to the inhabitants of Boise.
Any image (photo, website, movie, etc.) has a political statement embedded in it. This is especially true given the ways that discourse on refugees often turns them into displaced people with empty, invisible and voiceless identities and an expectation of a certain kind of helplessness. We wanted the content of the class to move beyond the institutional expectation that refugees are helpless.
This kind of expectation leads to a very strange discourse of human displacement. As Nevzat Soguk has argued, it is a discourse that provides “no place for the displaced human, a discourse on the question of the refugee that affords no place for the refugee and the refugee’s voice.” We wanted to provide a different expectation, an expectation that unmasked the individuality of the refugees as well as the historical and political circumstances that forced them into this refugee identity.
We worked with students in trying to put together the right type of questions, and we developed together a set of questions for the classroom and a set of questions for the studio. It was important to make sure that students understood that the questions would have to be shifted in order, or even radically changed, according to the answers given by the interviewees or to the stories that were shared. We reminded students to remain flexible and mindful.
In their final papers, students expressed a new admiration and respect for the refugee community, as well as a deeper level of understanding of the people and the difficulties they faced when coming to a new area. Before the class, most of them had only a limited knowledge of refugees in the Boise area, but listening to their stories of suffering seemed to hold the key to developing a new level of empathy that would leave them changed for the better.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.