Bilingual books keep folktales alive for South Hills immigrant, refugee families
Gabriel Ajang remembers back to his childhood in South Sudan where his parents would tell him the tale of the impatient hyena and his friends, the hippo and lion.
It had an important message — to be patient — and was always capped off with a song in their native language Dinka.
“It’s a teaching tool. It’s good to be kind to someone,” said Ajang, 40, who fled his homeland in 1987 due to civil unrest and spent years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before coming to the U.S. in 2001. He’s one of The Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of over 20,000 children who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
The tale of the impatient hyena now will be preserved for generations and shared with families across the Baldwin-Whitehall community. As part of the Saving Stories project, four bilingual books telling folktales from around the world as remembered by refugee and immigrant families living in the area were recently released.
Saving Stories is the brainchild of Paynter Elementary School second grade teacher Renee Christman.
Several years ago when she was working as a English as a Second Language teacher, Christman came up with an idea to have refugees and immigrants from the Baldwin-Whitehall community share fairy tales and folktales from their homelands. They then would be written into bilingual books — in both their native language and English. The published books would help students improve their English literacy while also maintaining cultural traditions for the refugees, Christman said.
“These are oral traditions from their countries,” she said. “Many of them don’t know how to read or write in their first language.”
The fear was if these tales weren’t written down, they could be lost forever, she said.
The Baldwin-Whitehall community has had a large population of refugees and immigrants dating back to the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census shows of Whitehall’s nearly 13,000 residents who are age 5 and older, more than 13 percent speak a language other than English at home.
Baldwin Borough has about 18,500 residents ages 5 and older. Of those, about 8 percent speak a language other than English in the home.
Christman partnered with Whitehall Public Library director Paula Kelly on the project, who focused on preserving the stories and culture. The books are placed in the Whitehall Public Library, Baldwin Borough Public Library, a local doctors office, all three elementary schools in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District and at local nonprofits. They’re also available on Amazon, and titles can be found at savingstories.community .
Artists from Whitehall Borough illustrated the latest books. An anonymous donor funded them.
With the latest four books, there now have been 12 total Saving Stories books published. A 13th one will be finished this spring.
The latest round of books include two containing Dinka folktales from Sudanese refugees and immigrants, a traditional Afghani fairy tale in Pashto, and an Arabic book explaining the Muslim faith to children. The 13th book will be Nepali, with three traditional songs young children can sing.
On Feb. 11, Ajang shared his childhood folktales with students at Paynter Elementary School while his daughter Akony, 9, and several other Dinka-speaking students watched on.
Keeping these stories alive is so important, Ajang said.
“Our kids now, they have more friends in English than Dinka,” he said. “You have to find time to talk to them about this in between the time they’re spending on their iPads and watching Nick Jr.”
It’s important to keep these traditions alive, he said, as it’s part of the refugee and immigrant children’s identity.
“We’re American,” he said. “But they need to know something about South Sudan…. It’s connecting them with where we came from.”
Garang Garang, 9, a fourth-grader at Paynter who was born in the U.S., read a folktale his dad — also one of The Lost Boys of Sudan — wrote for the project.
Having the stories written will help the kids learn to read and remember Dinka, he said.
Abiei Malueth, 8, said sharing part of her culture with her classmates was “actually cool.”
Abiei, who was born in South Sudan and moved to the U.S. about two years ago, said her family speaks Dinka at home. Her sister Athiei, 9, said knowing Dinka might help the kids when they grow up, because they’ll know another language.
For Abiei, it was nice that her classmates got to learn more about her.
“They tell us about their culture and so now they can know you better. It’s awesome,” she said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.