Where are you from?
Peter Gatkouth’s personal journey from a desolate refugee camp in Africa to the office of a nonprofit organization in High Point traces an experience both sobering and compelling, one that he now shares with dozens of other immigrants through an ambitious online project.
As a young man 20 years ago, Gatkouth and his relatives coped with the hardship of abject poverty and civil strife in Darfur, a region that recently became the world’s newest nation of South Sudan. Gatkouth, 44, eventually fled his homeland because he was targeted for violence because of his background. But his journey has come with a devastating price – he lost his father and two brothers in the conflict over the fate of southern Sudan.
Gatkouth made it to the United States 12 years ago following five years in a Kenyan refugee camp after he escaped his homeland. He became immersed in America, appreciating its freedoms and the peace to craft a life of accomplishment. Today, Gatkouth is a naturalized American citizen who helps other newcomers to the United States as an immigration specialist for World Relief in High Point.
When Gatkouth was approached about taking part in the new Where Are You From? project, which chronicles the stories of immigrants from foreign countries to the Triad, he didn’t hesitate to provide a testimonial for the website.
“I talked about how very important it is to me to have freedom of worship, freedom of movement, here in the United States. And voting, since I never voted in Sudan,” he said.
The Where Are You From? Project, launched nearly a year ago, sketches a video and audio mosaic for Americans who were born and raised here about the contributions that immigrants make to the United States, Gatkouth said.
“Immigrants join the military to protect the country, they pay taxes,” he said.
The immigrants interviewed so far for Where Are You From? live in or near High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
“For a year, we had been recording interviews and putting them on YouTube, promoting that and raising awareness about what we were doing. But we decided the website would be a good opportunity to attract more interest and have one place for people to watch the interviews,” said Alessandra Beasley Von Burg, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Wake Forest University.
The university and Von Burg are among the primary organizers of Where Are You From? The organizers have posted more than 35 interviews on the website so far, said Von Burg, who came to the United States from Italy 18 years ago. The goal is to have 100 or more interviews online within the next year.
“When you watch an interview, you can leave comments and share thoughts about the individual stories,” she said.
The website features an interactive map of the globe that pinpoints the nations immigrants departed from to reach the Piedmont Triad.
“You can really see where people are from,” she said. “We already have people from every continent. It shows how diverse we are.”
The website interviews have been used in settings ranging from elementary school social studies classes to college courses, Von Burg said.
“Immigration is a huge issue. Often the discussion tends to be negative, and immigrants are seen as a threat. One of the larger goals of Where Are You From? is to show that everyone has a history of movement, especially within the United States,” she said.
The website also incorporates the personal stories of Americans who date back six to eight generations, but whose family at some point in time were newcomers to the United States, Von Burg said.
“The premise is that everyone has a story to tell about where we’re from,” she said.
Where Are Your From? is an oral history of where America is going demographically and culturally.
“The website is a way to start a conversation,” Von Burg said.
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