Oral History Project

Refugees interviewing each other during Oral History training

The Oral History Project on Religion and Resettlement (OHPRR) is a growing archive of oral histories from resettled refugees in the United States whose religious and spiritual lives have been consequential in their journey, resettlement, and integration. We seek to gather and share oral histories from refugees, and are committed to collecting stories from, and involving, the full range of religious communities.
 
This project is the result of a series of convenings that identified a gap in our shared public, civic, and scholarly knowledge: that the religious and spiritual life of refugees and refugee communities is critical to understanding their experiences, and that their personal stories are a way for them to share and for everyone to learn about this issue. 
 
The project has several complementary objectives:

  • To create an open access archive that can be added to and used by scholars, refugee resettlement agencies and workers, and refugees themselves. It will create a major resource for professionals, practitioners, and scholars working on refugees and religion. The archive will be housed at Princeton University’s Mudd Library.
  • To preserve histories at a time when numbers of refugees being resettled in the United States are being significantly rolled back and the future of the resettlement program is unclear.
  • To provide an opportunity for further civic participation with and for refugees.
  • To enhance spaces of dialogue, listening, and chaplaincy within communities along intercultural and interfaith lines and across the country.
  • To educate students about the lives of refugees and the civic and moral significance of religion in their lives, and to train students in the practices of oral history making.

Training with Refugees:
Funded by Princeton University’s Humanities Council as part of the 2019 Being Human Festival
 
In December 2019, we convened 12 resettled refugees living in New Jersey for a day-long oral history convention in which they participated in a three-hour training followed by oral history sessions in which they interviewed one another, and concluding with a full-group reflection. The interactive training included the purpose and ethics of oral history, the process of preparing for and conducting an interview, and the connection between deep listening and chaplaincy. Because the oral history fellows represented religious and geographic diversity, these interviews inherently promoted interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

On the topic of religion, the refugees were curious to learn about their partners’ religious beliefs and how religious institutions shaped their experiences. One participant from Uganda said, “Religion shows up in a variety of ways: why we left the country, a source of strength, why we stayed involved in helping new refugees arrive.” His partner from Myanmar agreed: “There’s a broad approach with how it’s functioning, how it looks, but for us it was about community.” Another from Afghanistan added, “Sometimes these issues are difficult to discuss because we don’t often take a step back and examine how religion changes. It wasn’t the first concern, but I know it is important to me. I just don’t think about why. This was an important conversation for me to think about why.” Several participants expressed that they would like to keep reflecting on how their religious identities and communities have affected their sense of belonging in the US.
 
Student Internships:
Undergraduate student summer interns spend roughly 20% of their 8-week internships collecting oral histories. They participate in a training during the spring semester and have a weekly group call to reflect on the process of finding and interviewing oral history narrators.
 
At Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services in Washington, D.C., Amy Jeon, Class of 2021, interviewed a Cambodian man who resettled in Tennessee in the ’60s and faced discrimination when restaurants and gas stations refused to provide him service. “United States history is not just black and white,” Jeon said. “Many different minorities and people of color settle and participate in this history.
 
“I think that being able to meet with someone, even a stranger, and listen actively and graciously to their story is an important skill,” Jeon continued. “It is a great privilege to have someone, especially from a vulnerable population, entrust me with their story, and the process has provided so many moments of heartfelt connection and newfound learning.”

For more information about the oral history component of internships, check out the articles written on the following sites: 

Princeton University Homepage: Learning through listening: Princeton students participate in oral history project with resettled refugees in the U.S. By Katherine Clifton, Office of Religious Life. 

Princeton Alumni Weekly: Students Collect Personal Stories of Faith and the Refugee Experience. By Carlett Spike, PAW Writer. 

Patheos: "Faith is Something They Can Take With Them": The Importance of Religion in Refugee Resettlement." By Melissa Borja, Assistant Professor of American Culture, University of Michigan. 

Princeton University Humanities Council: BEING HUMAN: Religion Shapes Dialogue at Refugee Oral History Convention. By Katherine Clifton, Office of Religious Life.