Diverse Louisville teens come together to publish book on shared struggles

As part of the Louisville Story Program, Iroquois High School students in Louisville, Ky., hailing from Cuba, Pakistan, Iraq, Africa, and the United States collaborated on a book of personal essays. The result? A book filled with stories of love, fear, and triumph. 

Greg Eans/The Messenger-Inquirer/AP/File
Fifth grade students unload pumpkins from the back of a pickup truck in Louisville, Ky. Though Louisville has a majority white population, diversity has grown over the past few years as refugees settle there.

The nine Iroquois High School students who gathered last June for an ambitious project could, on the surface, not have been more different. Three are from Louisville, Ky., its south and west ends, the others from Cuba, Pakistan, Iraq, and Africa.

Thousands of miles and immeasurable cultural differences separated many of their childhood experiences and yet they had all met in a Louisville classroom – and they all shared a fierce desire to tell their stories.

The result is "No Single Sparrow Makes A Summer," a book of nine personal essays that weave in elements of oral history about the authors' families and communities, both here and abroad.

It's a powerful collection with a through-line that is perhaps unsurprising but nonetheless comforting: We are all very much the same, no matter our perceived differences.

Katherin E. Socias Baez, A'lea Marie Smith, Mehwish Zaminkhan, Maria Zaminkhan, Atalya Lawler, Yennifer Coca Izquierdo, Narjis Alsaadi, Autumn Wilson, and Hafsa Jama worked on the book for more than a year as part of the Louisville Story Program, a small nonprofit organization that publishes books about Louisville communities written by residents.

The students wrote tens of thousands of words, conducted dozens of interviews, and made hundreds of edits and rewrites while going to school full-time. Some also worked and raised a family.

Their words can sometimes stop you in their tracks, as when Mehwish Zaminkhan writes about how life in her idyllic village of Bazira changed when the Taliban swarmed them.

"When a tsunami comes, it destroys everything and the crops die before they are ready to harvest. That's what happened to the girls of Bazira: they were getting ready to sparkle and blossom, then the Taliban took over my village. They took innocent children from their parents, kids who had dreams to become doctors and engineers, and taught them to use guns instead of pens. The kids had no other choice. They were told to choose a side: get killed or become Taliban."

The project culminates Oct. 18 with the release of "No Single Sparrow Makes A Summer," and all nine writers will reconvene that night for a celebration at Spalding University's Columbia Auditorium, where Spalding President Tori Murden McClure will speak.

"I had never thought that I was going to be a published author one day, I never thought that my story was going to be heard," said Ms. Zaminkhan, from Pakistan. "This opportunity changed my life."

The Louisville Story Program, begun in 2013, is run by director Darcy Thompson and deputy director Joe Manning – Mr. Darcy and Mr. Joe to their student authors.

"No Single Sparrow Makes A Summer" is the Louisville Story Program's fifth book and all of them address the ties that bind. This is LSP's most expansive project but Iroquois High School lends itself to a broad worldview; its remarkably diverse student body speaks more than 40 languages.

The book is filled with stories of love and fear and triumph. There is profound parental sacrifice, communities terrorized by the Taliban and civil war, Cuba's desperately flawed system of socialism, and America's equally flawed systems of social services and criminal justice.

Somehow these young adults, all of them refugees in some sense, have not only survived but thrived. Five are now in college and the others are on schedule to enroll next year.

Yennifer, 17, spoke no English when she immigrated to Louisville from Cuba three years ago. She began writing in order to more quickly learn English and her chapter is a vivid portrayal of life in Cuba, where politics dictate every aspect of a family's existence.

"I wasn't that interested in writing in Cuba," she said. "I knew that, even if I wanted to say something with my writing, that my voice wouldn't be heard because a Communist government really doesn't allow us to express our voices or thoughts."

Providing an avenue for such expression is at the heart of the Louisville Story Program. It is, Mr. Thompson said, a place for voices that traditionally can't find an audience to be heard.

Thompson, Mr. Manning, and Iroquois High teacher Kim Courtney oversaw the project, which required the students to write and edit during school hours for credit in addition to hours on weekends and in the summers. They were also paid a stipend, but for an enormous amount of work.

"It's a real testament to the grit and dedication of the authors more than anything," Manning said.

Iroquois High School was chosen for its diversity and because it has a reputation for under-achieving.

"We wanted to give students a chance to speak for themselves rather than have people make assumptions based on data," Thompson said. "I know from having a background in education that that's far from telling the whole story."

These stories are almost too big for a book. Every student has lived through some form of trauma, often involving forced separation from family and friends, but the enduring message is one of moving into the future while making sense of the past.

"It was really therapeutic for me," said Ms. Smith, 19, who is taking classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College and has two young daughters, Jena and Jae'dyce.

"At first I was so, so, so scared to write about those emotions that I was feeling and those things that I was going through, but at the end of the day I felt that it was really smart of me to write about those things that I couldn't talk about, because eventually I was able to move past those things," she said.

The Louisville Story Program doesn't end with the publication of a book. In this case, Manning and Thompson are using a network of supporters and LSP's eight-person board to leverage help at the next level. Thanks in part to a LSP board member, Smith is now in Jefferson Community and Technical College's 15K-Jefferson Rise Together Partnership, which helps economically disadvantaged students get a degree.

"We're thrilled with these authors," Thompson said, "and are very happy they took a chance with us."

This story was reported by the Courier Journal.

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