'Saving Stories' preserves tales from refugees in Baldwin, Whitehall
Each night, when she gathers her family to pray, Lah Say tells her children the famous Thai story about a dove that failed to listen to its mother.
The Burmese native, who spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand, hopes to keep the story alive in her new country and ensure that “all little kids listen to their mother,” Lah Say, 41, now of Whitehall, said in her native language of Karen, as her daughter, Hser Mular Doh, 15, translated.
The story of “The dove who did not listen to his mother” was placed on shelves at several South Hills libraries and community organizations this week. The “Saving Stories” project, which published four bilingual picture books, launched on Monday at the Whitehall Public Library.
Refugees who mostly are natives of Bhutan and the country formerly known as Burma, and who now reside in Whitehall and Baldwin boroughs, rode in two school buses to fill the Whitehall Community Room. They listened to details about how their stories were published in hardbound books that will be displayed in the Whitehall, Baldwin Borough and Baldwin-Whitehall School District libraries.
“It's been almost three years of steady work on this and to finally see it come to fruition – although we're only halfway there – is really exciting,” Whitehall Public Library director Paula Kelly said.
Whitehall has had a large population of refugees, dating to the 1990s. The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of Whitehall's nearly 14,000 residents speak a language other than English at home.
The latest influx to the region are natives of Bhutan, who lived in a refugee camp in Nepal for many years.
The project was the brainchild of W.R. Paynter Elementary School English as a Second Language teacher Renee Christman, who said she wanted to improve English literacy skills for her students, maintain cultural traditions for the refugees and improve their native literacy. She said she also wanted to promote an understanding between generations and cultures, and share the tradition of reading aloud in the home.
More than 80 students at Paynter are English Language Learners, Principal Patricia Fusco said.
Christman said she looked for books published in both English and Nepali, the language many of her refugee students speak. She found one.
When she brought it to school, a quiet child who barely spoke in class amazed teachers and classmates with his reading skills in Nepali. Those who spoke English could see the words in their language, and were amazed at their classmate's language skills.
Christman said she thought: “My refugee families could write down some stories of their own” and a book could be created.
She partnered with Kelly and launched “Saving Stories.”
At first, no one responded to requests for stories. But translators explained the purpose of the project, and in the end they received enough stories to put together eight manuscripts. Art and English as a Second Language students from Baldwin-Whitehall helped illustrate and tell the tales.
The Baldwin-Whitehall School District, Whitehall Public Library, Baldwin Borough Public Library, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and South Hills Interfaith Movement all contributed. A $5,000 grant from Macy's allowed four of the eight manuscripts to be published.
“Two Karen Tales,” “Fruit and Vegetables,” “Weather,” and “Nepali Anthology,” were printed and distributed to the area libraries and community centers.
Baldwin-Whitehall students and parents lit up Monday as they heard the journey it took for their stories to get into print.
“It means so much to them. They have been extremely excited to share their stories,” Fusco said. “It almost makes them feel kind of famous. They learn about authors and illustrators. To actually see their name and their pictures in the books was absolutely amazing.”
About $4,000 more is needed to publish the rest of the manuscripts. A donation box sat in the back of the room on Monday night. Many of the refugees, holding dollars, went back to donate to help with the project.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or [email protected].