Teaching Migration and Ethnic History

March 27, 2023
By: Andy Urban

These posts are part of a Not From Here series on “Teaching Migration and Ethnic History: Content, Audiences, and Creative Pedagogies,” which is being developed in concert with the Organization of American Historians’ workshop that Natalie Mendoza and Andy Urban will be conducting on April 1, 2023.


Shared here are excerpts from two essays written by Rayna Hamdan and Maya Schwartzman, undergraduate students in the “Immigrant States: Jersey’s Global Routes” course that I taught during the fall 2022 semester at Rutgers. Jointly offered by the American Studies and Caribbean and Latino Studies departments, “Immigrant States” uses New Jersey as a case study for exploring how migrants are simultaneously celebrated and disparaged, and how the public’s embrace of the state’s diverse mosaic of peoples and cultures coexists with migrants’ exclusion, economic exploitation, and racial and social marginalization. With Rutgers, at an institutional level, enthusiastically declaring that it is “[a]mong the most ethnically diverse campuses in the nation and Big Ten,” one of the course’s critical aims is to pierce through generalizations contained in statements such as this. The course does so by examining with nuance what living in New Jersey has meant to migrants in practice, and how varied migrant groups categorized by race, nationality, and religion, have been received at different times.

Oral history assignments have long featured in im/migration history courses for good reason: they allow students to conduct original research. By completing oral histories, students produce archival materials on migrant groups, capturing firsthand accounts of migrant experiences that have in many cases gone largely unrecorded. New Jersey, for instance, has one of the largest populations of Gujarati immigrants from India in North America, but the primary source material documenting their histories is scarce. With smaller ethnic populations, such as New Jerseyans who identify as Kalmyk, Buddhists from Mongolia who settled in Russia in the seventeenth century, and a family heritage that one student in my class examined – this dearth of primary source material becomes even more pronounced. Admittedly, I am using the concept of archive here in a somewhat indeterminate fashion. I have not yet undertaken work to construct a formal digital archives consisting of the student oral histories I have accrued during my time at Rutgers, although if I were to do so, the Latino New Jersey Oral History Project that colleagues of mine have worked on would be a good model. I do tell my students – repeatedly – to seek out audiences for their completed projects, whether at family dinners, or in mosques, churches, synagogues or other community spaces, with the hope of inspiring like-minded projects and sustained engagement with oral histories already completed.

To my students, I emphasize the importance of thinking about what their interviewees can offer, and where their interviewees’ expertise resides. While someone’s mom is unlikely to be able to explain the ins and outs of post-1965 immigration policies and their enforcement – this is the interpretive and contextual knowledge that the student writing the paper should provide, after all! – they can register, on an emotional and affective level, what work, separation, and cultural loss and adaptation mean as facets of being a migrant. In short, the interviewees provide a unique and rich primary source for understanding migrant experiences from the bottom-up.

There are some necessary cautions. This is not an assignment I just hand out with a due date, but one where I carve out considerable class time so that students can discuss potential interviewees, workshop draft oral history questions, and share the historical analysis they are developing. A considerable number of Rutgers students come from undocumented or mixed legal status homes, and this is even more likely to be the case in a course focused on immigration. In my class, these students decide whether they want to explore this reality in their oral histories. If they do, I take extra time to go over how we can protect their confidentiality (not posting their essay to Canvas, for instance, where anonymity cannot be guaranteed). There are other compelling reasons for why students might not want to rely on family members as interviewees, or why they might not feel comfortable or able to ask caregivers to relay personal histories. There have been cases, for instance, where a family’s history with deportation has been too immediate and traumatic for a student just learning how to do oral history to tackle. When this happened, I nonetheless tried to make myself available to the student so that they could process their family’s history in one-on-one conversations, and I added course content that contextualized what they went through personally. I also connected them to undocumented activists on campus who I knew would help inform the student that they were not alone in their experiences. In general, I emphasize to students that they should talk to someone they feel comfortable talking to and who has a migrant experience—this is what matters most.

I’m thrilled to share excerpts from the essays Maya and Rayna wrote, along with video excerpts from follow-up conversations that I had with each of them. As we’ll be exploring further at the OAH in Los Angeles, students benefit from having repeat opportunities to reflect on the interviews they conduct, and to hone and refine their analysis through peer and instructor review (examples of which Natalie and I are excited to share at the OAH, and to brainstorm with everyone best practices for providing this form of feedback). As the very existence of this blog post demonstrates, our students’ study of immigration history does not need to end once the assignment is complete! From producing much-needed primary source material that can take on numerous lives of its own to sharing these stories directly with the Not from Here readership, the benefits of a migrant oral history assignment are far-reaching and essential to immigration history.

Rayna Hamdan, “The Brutality of the American Dream”

When my father finished high school, he knew the prestigious and selective university in Kuwait would not take him as a Palestinian. He knew he had to go somewhere where he could get a good degree and move back to Kuwait to support his family when he was done. Out of many countries, he ended up choosing the United States.

My father came to the United States on an I-20 visa. This visa allows migrants to reside in the United States while doing their studies. In 1984 there were only certain schools that offered the English as a Second language class that my father needed. He was able to receive an I-20 from a school in Bangor, Maine. When my dad came to the States, he started his stay in his uncle’s house on the outskirts of Princeton. His uncle put him in front of a map and showed him where Bangor, Maine was in relation to New Jersey and told my dad how cold it gets there, and as a man born and raised in the Kuwaiti heat, he knew it would not be ideal. His uncle was able to help him register at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) where the necessary ESL class was offered along with proximity to his uncle’s home and less abrasive winters. While he thought he was set and safe when attending MCCC, he received a letter in the mail saying that the Immigration Service was bringing a case against him. Understandably, this worried him but with his uncle’s help, he was able to appeal the case and prove that he was still doing what needed to be done during his stay with an I-20 visa.

After a couple of years at a community college, my father wanted to further his education in engineering. He was set to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in the fall and the summer before he would see his mother and youngest sister on their first visit to America… when the Gulf War broke out in Kuwait in August of 1990. His family was supposed to return to Kuwait later that month but from the news and accounts of family members still there, my father knew he could not let them return at that time. That fall, instead of going to school, he would have to enroll his sister in the 10th grade at Nottingham High School in Hamilton, New Jersey. He would acquire a full-time job at the electronic store he had been working at part-time for a few years prior. He would put NJIT behind him, sacrificing his dreams for what would always be more important to him: family. As he put it, “My dream of going back to school was erased in a way.”

Within the year his family was living with him, he was no longer attending school, putting his I-20 visa status at risk. At the time he had been dating my mother who he met several years prior in his English as a second language class. After his mother and sister decided to go to Jordan, where they had family that they could live with, he knew his situation was becoming more serious. He had limited time before the government was going to realize his overstay. Luckily, he already happened to be in love with a Puerto Rican migrant and the timing was right to propose to her. Their marriage brought relief. My mother was able to apply for a green card for my father when they got married.

As he and my mother raised their children, they encountered a struggle with how to raise children in American society. This was difficult as their own relationship was exogamous, and their middle ground was American culture and the English language. My father is adamant that he tried to teach us Arabic and my mother Spanish, but they claim we were resistant. He said he bought DVDs, VHS, books, and anything that we could learn but we refused to give it the time of day. My siblings and I are constantly disappointed in the missed opportunity to be trilingual and feel closer to our parents’ cultures. We were not surrounded by many Arabs or Hispanics which also made it difficult. My father’s immigration was no doubt troubling and hardship-filled, but my father represents a community that feels forever grateful and lucky to live in the United States. As a second-generation American, it is easy for me to be critical of the only country I have ever lived in but for him, there was no place he could go that would have offered him the same chances that America did. While he is still critical of the imperfect country, he appreciates it more than he ever could because of what he gained from it, and most important to him, having a family was when he knew it was all worth it. This country also gave him a sense of identity that he grappled with for years. He explained, “you sacrifice your identity” as an immigrant because of the unavoidable assimilation. In my father’s case, his identity was taken away by the Israeli government, and the Kuwaiti government, and at some points almost taken by the American government. Eventually, through it all, he could finally call himself an American citizen hyphenated with Palestine because he could never let Israel truly take that from him.

Maya Schwartzman

My mom lived an average life in her childhood city of Riga, Latvia. She lived in a tiny apartment, and never had her own room because she was the youngest child. Her bed was a pull-out couch, and the idea of having her own space among her family was never even an option. Everything was a shared living space. My mother’s father (my grandfather) worked as a radio engineer while my grandmother worked as a bookkeeper/ accountant for an office. My mom describes how my grandfather’s job eventually became a dead end, due to the fact that he was Jewish. In those times, my grandpa was responsible for assembling and creating stereos, reels, and cassettes players. These creations needed to be put into trials and be shown at exhibits. My mom describes how my grandfather was banned from these exhibits due to the fact his plant did not want Jews to progress in their career and earn recognition. My grandfather eventually quit, even though he had put his life work into this plant, solely because he knew no matter how well he excelled, he would never be able to move up and earn a better wage because of his religion. 

After careful consideration, my grandparents applied for a Visa with sponsorship from my aunt and awaited their interview at the embassy in Moscow. This was a very important day as my mom described, “[with] the outcome of this interview, you’re either getting your refugee status, which allows you some kind of financial aid plus the legal entrance…and in order to get it, you just have to show that you were not getting the same treatment because you’re Jewish.” Obtaining this refugee status was extremely important for my family, as it would allow them to get assistance from the government to pay for their migration to the United States.

Upon receiving the status of a refugee, my mom and my grandparents were able to begin their immigration to what they called the “free land.” They sold all their belongings, and my grandparents four-bedroom apartment, the one that my grandpa had poured his life savings into, was sold for a measly $4,500. My mom describes the shock of understanding that her childhood home, that my grandpa had been paying for his entire life, was worth as much as two months of her current mortgage. Everything was sold, and my mother packed her entire life into two suitcases, entering the United States and leaving everything she’s ever known behind.

My mother describes her first impression upon landing in America being that of fear. She had never seen so many cars and so much traffic. My mom recalls “about three, four weeks after we landed, I told my parents that you better collect money and send me back because I’m not staying here.” Everything she ever knew was gone, and with lack of language and sense of direction navigating the New York subway, she felt lost and out of place. Before moving to a separate apartment with my grandparents, my mom was cramped in her sister’s one bedroom with her parents, a newborn baby, and her sister’s husband. She describes how she lived in the living room with no personal space, and all her life was at the time was going to English classes and attempting to help her parents assimilate, which was especially difficult since they had had no language. “I was completely paralyzed. Mentally and physically.” She also talks about the way she felt as though her childhood had been left in Latvia. In her hometown, her dad knew people and had connections. He helped her get a job in a summer camp and was able to provide for her and ensure her wellbeing. Now in a new country, there was nobody else there to learn English. My mom had now taken the responsibility of the translator, which meant she had to figure out how to pay all their bills, calling the gas company, electric company etc. Back home my mom describes how she had friends, the movie theatre, and overall activities to do. At 21 she tells me how she just wants to have fun, and in the United States she realized her childhood had vanished in the blink of an eye. It is hard for me, as a 21-year-old, to put myself in my mother’s shoes, as I still feel like a child at heart. It was difficult to hear my mother’s accounts, to understand what she had to sacrifice in her own adolescence, to ensure I would never have to go through what she did.

My mother felt as though native-born Americans could not ever understand what she went through, and therefore she found it difficult to form strong friendships with people outside the immigrant group. Yet this idea may not have been so bad, as my mom was able to establish her own Russian community within the US, allowing her to feel a sense of belonging for the first time since she had immigrated. After meeting my father in Israel and marrying, they eventually moved to the suburbs of New Jersey to start a family. My dad describes how much my mom was against moving out of the city to a cookie cutter suburb, seeing as she had established a Russian community in Brooklyn for herself. Yet, once again, she realized that migrating to New Jersey ended up being the right decision. I was able to attend great schools, ones I wouldn’t have found in Brooklyn at the time. I was able to have the traditional high school experience, and attend football games with cheerleaders, the things my parents would only see in American movies. By leaving their Russian community once again in the city, I was able to understand the importance of their sacrifices as I got older, promoting me to work extremely hard to make what they gave up worth it.

Andy Urban


Back to all posts

Write for Not From Here

Become IEHS Digital Publication contributor. Submit your article!