Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Poetry Project

I come to poetry, storytelling and a love of language from my childhood because of the poems and stories I received from my tale-telling, poetry reciting, mandolin playing, master gardener grandfather. In all of my work—as a teaching artist, university teacher, poet and writer—whether with young immigrants and refugees, incarcerated youth or elders, or in writing poems and essays, or in activism for social justice, my deep trust in the possibilities of language to humanize us is guided by the complex beauty, vulnerability and soulful truth-telling within story and poetry.

—Merna Ann Hecht






IPM Poetry Partner:  Merna Ann Hecht :

Merna is the founder and co-director of the Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Poetry Project with a gifted ELL Classroom teacher, Carrie Stradley.

Merna is a poet, nationally known storyteller, and an essayist. She also teaches creative writing, social justice and humanities courses at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She has been a teaching poet for many years, though her career began as a pediatric nurse. She was in the first group of nurses to work with Elizabeth Kubler Ross, an experience that has shaped her life-work helping others give voice to their sorrow while discovering their sources of resilience. She has worked as a poet and storyteller at BRIDGES: A Center for Grieving Children in Tacoma and in pediatric hospitals, homeless shelters for teens and youth detention centers. She is honored to have received a 2008 Jack Straw Writers award, a National Storytelling Community Service Award and a National Storytelling Network Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling. She continues to write essays and poems which have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.

  • Stories of Arrival: Youth Voices Poetry Project — Overview

    The young people who participate in our poetry project, now entering its sixth year, are refugees and immigrants. They create poems that speak to loss, forced migration, struggle and hope. We bring their voices to the larger community to educate and inform others about the consequences of war for young people who are caught in violent conflicts not of their own making. Our wish is to expand the ways in which others can learn how to welcome these young people and support them in reaching their dreams for education, citizenship and for contributing their profoundly humane and compassionate insights and gifts to the larger community.


    High school age refugees and immigrants at Foster High School in Tukwila, WA, presently the most language diverse high school in the U.S. Our project participants have arrived in this country from many points around the globe including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Honduras, Iraq, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Russia, Somalia, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, and Vietnam.

  • Project Description

    A main purpose of our project is to continue the amazing and powerful process of trusting the power of poetic expression that shapes the poems created in the project as evidenced by the expressions of young people who have walked through unimaginable difficulties and yet bring gifts of courage and hope to their poetry.

    Our goals are:

    To provide high school age refugees and immigrants with an opportunity to create poetry that will speak to their memories of their cultures and countries and their experiences as refugees and immigrants;

    To share the moving poems that come forth in the project in innovative ways as a tool for spreading awareness about the tragic events and forces that cause and/or force people to emigrate, such as escaping war, communal violence, natural disasters and other circumstances that make their home countries unlivable;

    To serve as a model for any school district or community organization that understands the need for approaches to teaching that reflect a keen awareness of the fact that our American-born students and our larger mainstream communities need to understand the immigrant and refugee experience. To this end our goal is to “put ourselves out there” with radio broadcasts, community visibility and ever expanding community outreach and partnerships;

    To continue to create and sell our annual poetry anthology so that we can generate funds to support granting college scholarships for students in the project who write a winning essay as to what poetry means to them and how the project has and will continue to affect them as poets while they meet their dreams and goals for higher education.

    Project Description

    The students in Carrie Stradley’s ELL classes at Foster High School in Tukwila, Washington have migrated from their home country due to war, violence, poverty, lack of education and health care and other issues that have affected their own and their family’s safety and survival. Often these young people were forced out of their countries, separated from their families, and sent to refugee camps before arriving in the U.S. Each year of the past five, the students in the project have created an inspiring poetry anthology with beautifully crafted poems that tell of loved ones, loved places, loss, dreams and hopes.

    For many participants, this opportunity is their first experience with creative writing. The students are individually mentored which supports them in improving their English language writing skills.  They also receive professional voice coaching and the opportunity to record one of their poems in a state of the art sound studio at Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, one of our project partners. One of the many benefits of our partnership with Jack Straw Cultural Center is that they send the recordings of our students’ poems to a local Public Radio station, KBCS, 91.3 FM. The poems are broadcast throughout April in honor of National Poetry Month. In this way our poets’ compelling stories reach the wider community so that listeners increase their understanding of the consequences of war and forced migrations on the lives of young people. That the young people in our project can articulate their own sense of longing, grief, and hope as it connects to both the experience of living through heartbreaking conflicts and to creating peaceful solutions to war and the effects of poverty, discrimination and violence is a tribute to the power of poetry.

    In order to uphold our mission of making certain that the unique voices of refugee and immigrant youth are woven and welcomed into the wider community we work to find new partnerships and venues.

    Examples include:

    • For our 2014 project we established a partnership with Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. This one of a kind museum is dedicated to immersing visitors in immigrant stories of survival, success, struggle, conflict, compassion and hope. It is the only museum in the nation devoted to the Asian Pacific American experience. It is a Smithsonian Affiliate in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. Given that we have so many students in our project who are refugees from the long-lasting wars in Burma, Nepal and Bhutan this was a way for them to see their experiences reflected in a world class museum. We received a grant to bring all of our students to the museum. Also, some of our students’ work is showcased in the museum and they have shared their poetry in museum events.
    • Our project has been featured a number of times in Skipping Stones Magazine, an award winning multicultural magazine for youth whose mission is: "To encourage cooperation, creativity, and celebration of cultural and linguistic diversity; to explore stewardship of the ecological and social webs that nurture us; and to offer a forum for communication among young people from different lands and backgrounds.”  We were thrilled with these articles which contained a number or our students’ poems.
    • Eight poets from our 2014 project were selected as winners of a county wide Poetry Contest called Poetry on the Buses. This means that their poems are posted on Metro Buses and at Bus Stops. Three of the winning poets read their poems at the Poetry on the Buses celebration this past November at a theater in downtown Seattle for an audience of over 800 people. This literally means that the students went from refugee camps to a main-stage spotlight in a short time period all because of their poetry.
    •  As of September, 2015, our sixth year, we will embark on an exciting new community partnership with a project that seems ideal for our mission and core beliefs. We have long wanted to enfold our poetry project into Tukwila’s adult refugee and immigrant communities, both directly with our students’ families and beyond.  We will partner with a nonprofit organization called Project Feast, located at the Tukwila Community Center a short distance from the school.. Their mission is to “demonstrate the remarkable power of food to nourish more than just the body and to bring people to the table, transform lives and fosters mutual understandings across diverse cultures in the most delicious ways possible.” The program provides training, catering and cooking classes for refugee women from around the globe by equipping them with hands-on vocational training to gain their footing in the food industry in the Seattle area. In our pilot year with Project Feast, we will create a book of poetry which will also include recipes from the countries and cultures of our students and the refugee women in the project. We will focus our poetry on memories of food as related to culture, home, rituals, festivals and family, while at the same time we will talk about aspects of hunger, of food rationing in refugee camps, and of the survival that is part of forced migration. We will engage our students in collecting recipes directly from the women of Project Feast which will include interviews with them. The finale of the collaboration will be a community celebration of the book’s completion which will include a poetry reading presented by our students to which families and community members will be invited. An open mic for Project Feast participants and community members will follow and Project Feast participants will delight us with their catering. We expect this to be our largest community event to date


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