By:Beth Parish Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Building Bridges
Imagine it is midnight, you are eight years old, and your mother wakes you. She tells you that you can pack three things and then you will leave everything else behind: your toys, your books, your clothes, your friends and some of your family. What if you had 24 hours to move across the world, to a foreign land, where no one spoke your language, no one knew your customs and no one looked like you. Could you do it? Don’t feel bad if you answered no, I could not do that, you are not alone. These are the types of questions Kay Smith and Carole Spaulding-Kruse ask school children and business people in their World of Difference Workshops. These questions are challenging for the U.S. schoolchildren to answer and probably even harder for the businessperson.
These questions do not come from thin air, rather these questions help workshop participants put themselves into a real world situation faced by families that are forced by political, economic, environmental, and cultural situations to leave their home and re-locate to a foreign land. Kruse and Smith developed these real world situations as a result of their work profiling ten families, through the eyes of the children who have had to move across the world, leaving everything they know to settle in Iowa. The women put these stories into a book that profiles families who left their native land to find a better life; the families might have left for political, cultural, or economic reasons. While some of these children were woken and rushed out under the cover of night, others came on a gentler route to Iowa. The authors hope that the stories of these young people will help the children and families that read the book, better understand the great cultural diversity within their own communities in Iowa.
The Bridge to Iowa
When I heard that two moms had written a book about families that had moved to Iowa from different parts of the world, my first thought was, "Iowa, why Iowa," and really, "How many people from remote parts of the world would be moving to Iowa?" As Smith and Kruse found out, Iowa has long been an open and welcoming state for those going through tough political and environmental situations. At the end of the Vietnam War, the governor of Iowa was the only U.S. governor to raise his hand and say yes, Iowans would welcome, with open arms, displaced Vietnamese families. While we might think of Iowa in terms of America’s Heartland, the open door policy has brought great diversity to The Hawkeye State. Governor Robert D. Ray, the governor who raised his hand at the end of the war, is writing the forward for the book Zakery’s Bridge. Much beloved in the state, the Governor felt that the future of Iowa’s economy depended on helping people immigrate to Iowa. Now the families who came to Iowa are giving back to the community and have become an integral part of the Iowan culture and economy.
The title of Kruse and Smith’s book is Zakery’s Bridge: Children’s Journeys From Around the World to the Heartland. In addition to the title story about a family’s flee from Bosnia, the book presents the journeys of families from the Sudan, The Netherlands, Vietnam, Laos, Palestine, Israel, India, Mexico and Taiwan. With the children guiding the accounts, Zakery’s Bridge tells more than stories of immigration; the young people recount, in detail, why they had to leave their homes, and what political, cultural, economic, or environmental situation made the move necessary. Most of the families did not have Iowa in mind when they fled, and they certainly had not seen tourist brochures and pamphlets from America’s Heartland.
The title character, Zakery, and his family crossed both physical and cultural bridges as they fled from Bosnia-Herzegovina. When his family left their home in the war-torn country, they did not know where they were going to live. But because it was a state with a well-funded refugee re-settlement program, an aid group re-located the family to Iowa. The physical bridge in the title of the story is located in Mostar, Bosnia - the original home of Zakery’s family. The city was named after those that minded the old bridge; the residents of Mostar were proud of the ancient bridge at the center of the cultural heart of the town. Even though the bridge had no strategic military value, because it was a symbol of peace to the residents, it was destroyed during the war. For all of his life, Zakery had heard about this wonderful, symbolic, peaceful bridge. At the conclusion of the war, the residents of Mostar used international aid monies to re-build the bridge. After hearing so much about the bridge, Zakery and his family were able to travel from Iowa to walk across the re-constructed bridge; during the same trip Zakery had a chance to meet family members from Bosnia that he had only heard stories about.
Or, in the 1970’s, at the age of eight, Kong was snuck out of her Laos village in the back of a flat bed truck; the book recounts her family’s story of flight to Iowa through her eight-year-old eyes. Before the Zakery’s Bridge book project, Kong’s children knew very little of her story; when asked if they would be able to flee in the middle of the night, Kong’s children were not sure they could leave everything as their mother had done decades ago.
Not every family in the book left their home country as a refugee. Because the farmland in The Netherlands is shrinking, Iowa has been working to relocate Dutch dairy farmers. One story in Zakery’s Bridge recounts a family’s move to America’s Heartland for economic opportunity.
Arriving with few possessions, not knowing the language, having to start over, the children and families that Kay and Carol met were positive and inspiring. Kay recounted that the families did not use the sadness of their stories to keep them from going on and succeeding in life. After losing his father to an ambush, one young man fled from the Sudan, leaving everything behind. Today, this Iowa high school student has started a young diplomat program to help his classmates learn about other cultures.
The Bridge to Understanding
Kruse and Smith hope that their book and their World of Difference classroom programs will help citizens, young and old, appreciate our culturally diverse world. This book can help young people understand the point of view of the new kid coming to school, families learn about the history and culture of another family, encourage readers to see the rich diversity that makes up our neighborhood, and the stories can help all of us view our world through the lens of a displaced family. The stories in Zakery’s Bridge are conversation starters, not the end of one child’s journey.
Not known for its cultural diversity, Kruse and Smith have found that Iowa is a great melting pot with families from different backgrounds and cultures. The authors want young people to think about their own stories and journeys. Smith noted, as Americans, our story began over 200 years ago. While this book honors family histories, Carol pointed out that bridges need to be built between a myriad of ethnic groups. While Iowa has a large Caucasian population, there are Iowa residents who have immigrated from all over the world including Asia, Africa, and Europe. Iowans have cultural backgrounds that embrace religious and ethnic traditions. Carol said that Zakery’s Bridge is not just about the U.S.-born Caucasian population understanding people of color. The stories also encourage those from the Native American tribes to learn about the residents from Asian countries, encouraging those with roots in Africa to learn about the Hindi cultural traditions and hoping that those from The Netherlands will embrace African traditions. Kruse highlighted the success of the Des Moines Asian festival; every year Des Moines hosts an Asian cultural festival that is now seen as a celebration for the entire community event, not just a celebration for the local residents with ties to Asian countries.
The Bridge for Smith and Kruse
Smith recognizes, we all have a story, a journey. While neither Smith nor Kruse are native Iowans, both feel at home in the state that is most famous for holding the caucus that kicks off the presidential primary season. Smith freely admits that she is drawn to cultures different from her own. She fondly recounts middle school days with her best friend who was from a Korean family. This family spoke Korean, had artifacts from home, and made her feel part of something special when she visited their house. Kruse, who teaches English literature and writing at Drake University in Des Moines, admits that after growing up in California and spending a year in Paris she felt culturally unprepared moving to Iowa; twenty years later she also considers herself a native Iowan.
Kruse and Smith met through activities with their children. Over coffee one day, Smith proposed the idea that became Zakery's Bridge. Kruse, who had done a lot of research into American ethnic literature and had been teaching multi-cultural literature classes, was drawn to the idea of telling the story of Iowa’s unique diversity through the eyes of children. Because interesting immigration patterns have helped Iowa become what it is today, Smith and Kruse wanted to help raise a generation of children who could work and live in a very diverse environment.
The Bridge Beyond the Book
The road to publishing Zakery’s Bridge was long and strewn with roadblocks. Smith and Kruse approached traditional publishers with the book idea. While there were encouraging words, no one was willing to take on the project. Discouraged, the authors returned to their writing and their work looking for other avenues. Inspiration came from one of Kruse’s students who had a friend that used a community press to publish a book on Iowa’s homeless youth. While the author wanted the voices of these young people to be heard, he also wanted to help raise monies for the local shelter. With the community-publishing model, the book’s proceeds go directly to the youth shelter. Because Kruse and Smith wanted the message of Zakery’s Bridge to go beyond the book, they adapted the community-publishing model to allow the book’s proceeds to support their World of Difference Foundation. Committed to giving school children and business people hands-on experience related to global equality, cultural diversity, and world issues, this multi-cultural non-profit allows the message of Zakery’s Bridge to go beyond the book.
Zakery’s Bridge is due out in November of this year; community publisher Shrieking Tree Press will print the book. To learn more about World of Difference please go to www.worldofdifference.us. To learn more about Zakery’s Bridge visit www.zakerysbridge.com. If you are interested in purchasing the book please visit www.shriekingtree.com.
Beth Parish is an affiliate faculty member at Regis University teaching graduate and undergraduate marketing, advertising and consumer behavior classes. Beth is currently pursuing her doctorate in organizational leadership focusing her research on understanding how consumer purchase behavior is influenced by the social mission of the company.