A new video collection of interviews of immigrants by Virginia Humanities and the Library of Virginia will feature three graduates of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) at Eastern Mennonite University.
“Immigration Stories” will include more than two dozen 90-minute interviews Virginia residents, among them Isabel Castillo Ressler ‘07, MA ‘17, Patience Kamau ‘02, MA ‘17 and Jacques Mushagasha MA ‘16. The project aims to create a digital archive of primary sources telling their personal stories that reflect the complexities of the experiences of immigrants.
The interviewees represent the “thousands like them who … are enriching the state culturally, economically, and in many other ways,” writes David Bearinger, director of grants and community programs for Virginia Humanities, on the project website. “They represent the story of Virginia and the ideals of democracy, diversity and opportunity that are the heart of Virginia’s contributions to the ‘American Evolution.’”
Excerpts from the video collection were included in a Library of Virginia exhibition “The New Virginians” that opened in December. It will begin circulating statewide in 2019, with Virginia Humanities offering mini-grants to the exhibit host sites and to develop localities’ own immigration stories.
From six continents and now living in all parts of the state, the interviewees include physicians, a photographer, business owners, a state Cabinet secretary and more and span ages ages 21-78. They discuss their reasons for leaving their home countries, the challenges they faced in the United States, family separations and reunifications, and hopes for – and concerns about – the future.
Castillo Ressler, Kamau and Mushagasha all live in Harrisonburg.
Castillo Ressler, a Shenandoah Valley organizer for Virginia Organizing, was brought into the United States from Mexico when she was six and has spoken publicly about her own undocumented status since she was a high school student. Her exchange about the DREAM Act at a 2010 Harrisonburg town hall meeting with then-governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell was detailed in a New York Times article. She has also been featured in The Atlantic and on Public Radio International’s Bob Edwards Weekend. In 2011, the University of San Francisco awarded her an honorary doctorate “for her selfless courage in advancing the cause of undocumented college students,” and in 2017 Sojourners recognized recognized her as a “Movement Honoree.”
Kamau, who came to the United States from Nyeri, Kenya, is assistant to the executive director at CJP. She completed a practicum at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation in collaboration with the Center for Cultural Landscapes at the University of Virginia, where she explored issues of race and public spaces, specifically the case studies of the Sand Creek Massacre and the founding of the University of Denver, battle flags in Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, and the renaming of Calhoun College at Yale University.
Mushagasha is the president of the Congolese Community of Harrisonburg, chair of the Congolese American Foundation, and founding member of the Christian Coalition for Justice and Peace in Congo. In a February 2018 PeaceSigns op-ed, he called for Christians to “take a stand for peace and human dignity in Congo by taking action and denouncing the atrocities and their perpetrators” of “the worst, deadliest and the most ignored violence the world has known since World War II.”
The project is supported by Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration/American Evolution, which highlights the 400th anniversary of events in Virginia “which continue to define America,” its website states. “These events have shaped the democratic process, cultural diversity, historical traditions, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the United States.” The areas of focus include the first representative democracy, the first Africans, the impact of women and Thanksgiving.
The initiative is sponsored by the Virginia General Assembly, Dominion Energy, Altria, Towne Banke, Sentara, Optima Health, Virginia Tech Carilion, and others.