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Teenage Immigrants Tell Their Stories Through Poetry

A student records her poem at Jack Straw Productions in Seattle. (Sherwin Eng Photo)

The Tukwila School District is the most diverse school district in the United States and Foster High School is a prime example of that. The school’s ESL classes are full of teenage immigrants from dozens of countries, representing even more cultures and languages. School is a struggle for many of these students, who are still learning English, and they don’t often get an opportunity to be creative or share their colorful stories. But in Carrie Stradley’s ESL class they do. That’s where they’re writing poetry, as a part of a project called Story of Arrival, Youth Voices.

The students spent five weeks writing a poem about their homeland, their memories, their hopes and their dreams for the future. Now they’re recording their poems at Jack Straw Productions so they can be played on KBCS during National Poetry Month.

Many of the students are from war torn countries. Some grew up in refugee camps. Some of their parents have been killed, or they’ve left family behind to come to America. Ms. Stradley says they can talk about those things in their poems.

“The one thing that they’re really missing, that they all need, is some sort of therapy. If they are not, themselves, dealing with Post Traumatic Stress, they have family members who are. So I feel that this is a really great way for them to acknowledge that.”

Mama Tatamang moved to Tukwila from a refugee camp in Nepal in 2009. She spoke no English. Now she’s writing poetry.

“The first time, I was like, ‘What should I write?’ and then when I started writing. I kind of get old memories. I write something and then, quickly, I get other things. So, I write write write it!

Iban moved here from Mexico two years ago.

“One day before my father came to the U.S., I was like, ‘Can I go with you?’ He said, ‘Ok, let’s go.’ So I came. I think I make the biggest mistake in my life. Living with my dad is not what I thought and I miss my mother. When I finish high school I will go back to Mexico. No matter what.”

I wondered how these teenagers, who are brand new to speaking English, are already writing similes and metaphors. Project coordinator Merna Hecht explains, “Poetry already breaks the rules of English. I think that gives a comfort to the young poets because they suddenly don’t have to worry about paragraphs, periods and commas.”

“Sometimes when I’m alone, I miss something or I want to say something when I’m angry, I write poems,” Iban says.

Elizabeth Reh grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand. “I really like to write and I like to write stories about my life.”

“So many times English is just this sort of utilitarian, academic class where we get them ready for test, we get their English ready for other classes,” Stradley says. “But we always miss out on their creative side. Students can actually be creative and talk about themselves and their experiences.”

The student’s poetry will be made into a book, and the proceeds will go to the Refugee Women’s Alliance in Seattle and to a college scholarship fund. Click here Click here to support Stradley’s poetry book fund. You can email her if you’re interested in purchasing a poetry book at

To listen to the student’s poetry, press play and listen to the audio above.

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