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In My Own Words

Katherine Clifton ’15 moderates a panel during the Office of Religious Life's Refugee and Resettlement Symposium in 2019.
Photo: Andie Ayala ’19

By Katherine Clifton ’15, Office of Religious Life

Would you please tell me about where you’re from?

This has been my opening question for a couple dozen interviews I’ve conducted with resettled refugees living in the United States through the Office of Religious Life’s Oral History Project on Religion and Resettlement. This project is central to ORL’s Religion & Forced Migration Initiative (RFMI), launched in 2017 to improve our collective understanding of and appreciation for the complex and often overlooked intersection of faith and forced migration.

After working with refugees in Europe and studying public policy and forced migration at the University of Oxford, I returned to Princeton in 2018 to coordinate RFMI thanks to a four-year grant from the Luce Foundation. I was immediately drawn to the oral history project for its potential to amplify refugees’ stories on their own terms and in their own words. My fascination with this method of story-gathering partly stems from participating in Princeton’s Novogratz Bridge Year Program in Serbia in 2010-11 prior to my first year on campus, which I sometimes refer to as my quietest year. Unable to speak Serbian fluently, I took to asking open-ended questions of my host family, colleagues and others I met: Who is one of your heroes? What does home mean to you? When was the last time you tried something for the first time? Four years later, I was lucky to get the chance to resume this role as an informal oral historian when the Dale Fellowship brought me back to Serbia, where I spoke with Serb and Romani individuals and integrated their interviews verbatim into monologues for a documentary play. The practice of listening deeply to someone’s motivating principles, evocative memories or perspective-altering moments has never failed to provide me with a sense of purpose, connection and adventure, especially against the many uncertainties that abound living abroad.

Over the past three years leading RFMI, I’ve trained 70 undergraduates in our oral history methodology rooted in principles of chaplaincy, friendship and interfaith dialogue. Our archive contains over 170 interviews representing the plurality of the world’s religions and spanning the history of the U.S.’ resettlement system from Holocaust survivors to Vietnamese boatpeople to Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders. In September, we launched the “Voices of Afghanistan” series which features interviews with Afghan refugees speaking on wide-ranging themes such as religious identity and persecution, gender dynamics and involvement with the U.S. military. Alumni who conducted these interviews and I are developing curricula that integrate oral histories into lesson plans for secondary schools and places of worship. In the spring, we will make all interview recordings and transcripts available on our website. Cultivating this archive has convinced me that in order to change polemical discourse on refugees and inspire a more welcoming spirit, we should first listen to, understand, and center the needs, desires and experiences of refugees and their communities.

When I’ve asked refugee narrators about where they’re from, I’ve received responses ranging from two words (“Louisville, Kentucky”) to 30-minute soliloquies about familial lineage from 10th century A.D. in present-day Pakistan. By creating space for folks to ruminate on their journeys, I am heartened by how much we can learn from each other and how undeniably interconnected we all are; I am humbled by the privilege that comes from (and the responsibility that comes with) being attentive to and present for another person; and I am struck, constantly, by the sheer diversity of experiences that somehow only reinforces my conviction that our similarities are much greater than our differences. Oral history interviews now offer me the chance to indulge in what I miss most from living abroad: the abundant opportunities to seek meaning, explore the unknown and restore my faith in humanity in the same breath.