By Milbre Burch
A college teacher learns traditional tales to advocate for international students whose countries have been targeted by an anti-Muslim travel ban. Interviewing the students about the tales they grew up hearing uncovers images that help them endure.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Tales and Conversations from Beyond the Ban
- What stories from the oral tradition – or from your family tradition – contain images that have stayed with you across the years, particularly images that have helped you cope with difficulty in your life?
- What is it about oral tradition tales that allow us to consider the human condition at a safe distance, its foibles and its triumphs, when we might not be able to give the same consideration to a personal tale told to us?
- Discuss three ways that oral tradition tales might help you to reach across cultural borders that seem to exist between you and others.
- If you had to choose between studying abroad and seeing your family, what would you choose?
- What hardships did Milbre’s students endure because of their single VISA status? Do you agree or disagree with their status and treatment as immigrants?
- Persian Folktales, Alfred Kurti, trans., Gateshead: Northumberland Press Ltd., 1971. Print.
- Folktales from Iraq, Abdul-Haq Al -Ani, et al, Ealing London: Books & Books Limited, 1995. Print.
- “God Will Provide” (Libya) in Arab Folktales, Inea Bushnaq, New York: Pantheon, 1986. Print.
- Folktales from Somalia, Soomaaliyeed, Sheekoxariirooyin, Trans. Ahmen Arsan Hanghe. Göteborg: Elanders Digitaltryck, 2003. Print.
- “Yousif Al-Saffani” (Sudan) in Arab Folktales, Inea Bushnaq. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
- “Talking Turkeys” and “The King Who Changed His Ways” (Syria) in Arab Folktales, Inea Bushnaq. New York: Pantheon, 1986.
- Spring of Wonder: Yemenite Folktales, Shalom Ashbel. Tel Aviv: Contento, 2015. Print.
- Education and Life Lessons
- Living and Traveling Abroad
Hi, I’m Milbre Burch. As a college professor, I teach international grad students who have studied English in their home countries since they were adolescents. For the last four years, I start each semester by bowing to my students for going after a master’s or a Ph.D. while learning, reading, writing and speaking a second language thousands of miles from home.
In January of 2017, when the newly installed President of the United States signed an executive order banning the entrance of citizens from Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the U.S., the ground shifted for my students from those countries. America, which had originally welcomed them as emerging scholars or researchers or professionals, had now become an unfamiliar landscape and one that was hostile.
In the days after the ban, protests erupted across the United States. International travelers were stranded en route at airports. Attorney General Sally Yates was fired for not defending the ban and an ongoing push pull began between the administration and federal judges.
I was beside myself with a feeling of injustice. Two days after the ban was signed, I met my Monday morning class and told them that I had shed angry tears over the weekend and I couldn’t promise not to shed some more. Everyone in the class felt uneasy about their vulnerability – even students from countries that weren’t named in the ban wondered if their welcome would be rescinded.
My husband was the one who suggested that I look for and tell stories from the targeted countries as an act of resistance. For, as scholar Bill Ferris, says folklore allows you to go in at the foundation of understanding and welcoming, respecting others.
So I began to put together a repertoire for tales beyond the ban. I looked for one story from each of the seven countries; oral tales that spoke of hospitality or marginalization or perseverance. I had a chance to premiere it at the University of Missouri for a group of gifted and talented teenagers who had gathered there and I invited my international students who were interested – two came with their husbands in tow.
The audience listed, listened for 90 minutes and afterwards lingered to talk about the stories. Two girls in headscarves with their bare- headed friends came up to thank me for the tales and the husband of one of my grad students also said, “Thank you for telling our stories.”
Later in the summer, I interviewed those two couples at a brunch at my home. We started by talking about the stories that they’d heard and then talking about the stories they grew up hearing. All of them had heard oral stories, especially the Persian epic of the kings. One of my guests proved to be a gifted and prolific storyteller and he shared several episodes from the epic as we sat at the table. We listened for two hours learning, not for the first time, that sharing stories and sharing food is one of the ways that human beings welcome one another.
With our bellies full, I asked them to talk about how this proposed ban affected their lives and their studies. One said, “I consider giving up my studies every day. It’s not fair to decide between seeing parents and studying. It’s not just coming for the Ph.D. We were planning to start a new life and now that doesn’t seem possible.”
The students were all vetted for a single entrance visa. That meant that they could come in once, but if they left they’d have to begin the vetting process again. One said, “We don’t have a U.S. embassy in our country, so we must go to another country to apply for a visa and so it’s risky to leave. We may not get back in.”
I asked them how their departments were responding to their situation and one said, “I didn’t know anyone knew me. I’m the only one from my country. Everyone else in my department is American, but I got lots of e-mails and support. I’m surrounded by good people.”
I asked again what life beyond the ban was like for them and one said, “It is always hard to go back and forth between this country and our home. It has never been easy, but before we felt welcome and since the ban we think: okay, this is not the place for us. We have been sheltered in a bubble at the university. We did not know what else was going on in the country.”
I said, “What can your American friends do?” And they were silent. And then one said, “Just open your eyes to what is happening.”
I asked them too if there were any images in the oral stories they knew that stuck with them in times of difficulty. And one told the story of Simorgh. Now this is a mythological bird, wise and benevolent which will appear to help you if you burn a single feather to call for its aid.
He said, “Simorgh means thirty birds. It is a Sufi story. In a time of great trouble. all the Birds of the world gathered to go to the land of Simorgh to ask Simorgh to be their King, for Simorgh can solve any problem. But they had to travel a vast distance and faced great hardships – mountains and seas and lands of fire. Some gave up hope and turned back. Others died in the journey. By the time they reached the land of Simorgh there were only thirty left. And when they got there they realized that the bird they were seeking was themselves; the thirty birds who persisted.”
That’s when one of the others at the table looked up and said, “I’m going to be a Simorgh.”
And so I stand as a witness to my students’ stories, knowing that a diverse population enriches a nation that welcomes them. I think about oral stories about empowerment and lived experiences of exclusion and I hope that all of us can be persistent as the thirty birds facing hardships, traveling long distances to forge a shared future together.
May we all be Simorgh.