ISAAC students recognized at 21st Connecticut Immigrant Day

Hartford — Already recipients of a national grant, the sixth-graders of the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication in New London again were honored Wednesday, this time during the 21st Connecticut Immigrant Day at the state Capitol.

Hosted by the Connecticut Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, the event kicked off with the swearing-in of 15 new U.S. citizens. From there, various presenters told the tales of this year’s award winners, including Bassem Gayed, who coordinates multicultural services for the Otis Library in Norwich, and the ISAAC students.

In a well-executed speech, sixth-grader Ayanna Fernandez said she and her peers were “honored and humbled” to be selected for the Angela R. Andersen Memorial Award, which recognizes young people who are passionate about the issues impacting immigrants and refugees.

At the beginning of the school year, the sixth graders at ISAAC — there are about 90 of them — embarked on a project that only has grown larger. Led by social studies teacher Mike Kuczenski, the students first learned about immigration in general before tackling the basic tenets of photography and interviewing.

Kuczenski then arranged the students into groups and asked them to interview and photograph willing immigrants in the greater New London community.

Now, months later, the students are preparing to partially staff a traveling, interactive art gallery that features the immigrants they met.

For each interviewed immigrant, there’s a 20-by-30-inch canvas filled with a black-a-white photo taken by a student. Above each canvas is a card with the first name of the immigrant and a QR code with a message such as “Scan here to learn about her journey.”

Each link leads to a sleek webpage including photos, a written narrative, a short video, a map drawn on a coordinate plane and a comparison of the climate in Connecticut to the one in each immigrant’s home country.

On Friday, the students’ gallery will be on display in full for the first time, at a sold-out multicultural event happening at the Holiday Inn in New London. From there it will move to the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center and then to Connecticut College.

On Wednesday, some of the canvasses lined the Old Judiciary Room as Fernandez spoke.

Clearly moved by the project, she told the story of her interview with Luqman, a man who came to the United States from Ghana.

Through interviewing him, Fernandez said she learned Luqman wasn’t accepted in southern Ghana because he was Sudanese and spent much of his early life in northern Ghana. The rift sometimes became violent, Fernandez said.

“The way he described it was heartbreaking,” she told the packed room. “His pain became my pain.”

Another focus of Kuczenski’s project, which earlier this year got a $5,000 award from EL Education, is trying to break the stereotypes people hold about immigrants.

“We interviewed 16 hardworking immigrants,” Fernandez said. “While listening to them, we learned that all of us want the same thing: the best for ourselves, our families and our communities.”

She left those in the audience with a piece of advice from Luqman himself.

“How about you spend five to 10 minutes and sit down with that person you call an immigrant?” she said, quoting Luqman. “Have a conversation with that person. Interact with that person, and you will be amazed by what you find out.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Bassem Gayed, which was listed incorrectly in a news release.

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