Stories of often harrowing escapes from oppressive or dangerous countries will be shared live and in person by five immigrants who lived them during a free event titled, "When Home Won't Let You Stay: Stories of Escape and Refuge" — co-sponsored by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center and the Palo Alto Library.
The event will be debuted publicly May 10, 7 to 9 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center's El Palo Alto Room.
"We all have immigrant stories, unless you're Native American," Elliot Margolies, producer of the video recordings and long-affiliated with the Palo Alto-based Midpeninsula Community Media Center, said of the event. Even Native Americans immigrated from Asia to North America in the far-distant past, he noted.
There is a deep connection to today's world, internationally and locally, he notes, citing the millions who have left "countries too dangerous to live in" bound for unknown lands and futures.
"Basically the storytelling events are a chance for people to meet folks who are their neighbors, people whose lives have been colored by very poignant challenges, and very dramatic circumstances," Margolies said.
Two earlier video events featured "Dreamers," immigrants who arrived as children with their undocumented parents — whose fates are now the topic of political give and take nationally.
Margolies said the gathering of the interviews is a follow-up to his earlier role in creating a website (madeintoamerica.org) where immigrants share their stories, now with about 400 written stories plus photos and other material.
Margolies said his role in the immigrant-stories project had its own evolution. It started when he volunteered a half dozen years ago to teach English as a second language (known widely as ESL) at the Day Worker Center of Mountain View.
Margolies received a grant through the Media Center from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to produce a documentary about the Day Workers Center, and trained eight workers how to tell their stories on video.
"I got more and more interested," he said about the lives of those he interviewed. Bolstered by grants from Facebook, the California Humanities Council and other sources, Margolies began doing storytelling and video workshops at schools, places of worship, Stevenson House and Palo Alto Housing Corporation residences.
In many cases, he teaches people how to video-interview parents or relatives, and coaches people "how to tell their stories in front of an audience."
The website was added several years ago as a place for the written stories and photos of the storytellers.
The experience has had a strong personal impact on his life, Margolies said in a coffee-shop interview. In addition to "being fun" meeting the immigrants, "it makes me aware of what incredible energy it takes to start all over in a new place" with a different language, no job and no home initially.
"They just have a lot of hope and faith that you can put something together."
And something often happens with the second generations of the immigrants. A recent group of five second-generation individuals showed that two had received doctorate degrees, one was attending college and others were working for nonprofit organizations or schools or teaching, he said.
The May 10 presentation will feature individuals from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Vietnam, each with sharply divergent backgrounds but interwoven with common threads of courage and hope.
Internationally, those threads are shared by 65 1/2 million people who have been displaced from their homes and more than 25 million who have left their home country, according to a 2016 worldwide survey by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
"Basically these are people who love their country but couldn't stay," Margolies said. He added that "many have a tremendous love of family," common to all but particularly intense in persons from family-oriented cultures such as those in Mexico and Central and South America.
The escapes can be hair-raising. A woman from Aleppo, Syria, tells of hiding from snipers on rooftops, in a city once heralded for its diversity and tolerance now a place of immense danger and suffering.
Some tell of being targets of religious discrimination, such as for being Christian in Iraq after Saddam Hussein took power.
One of the tales is by a man from Vietnam who faced "an extra onus" in that his ancesters were from China, Margolies noted. He was the eldest of 11 children, and escaped on a large home-built boat with many others.
Margolies has his own immigrant story: "My grandmother was from Lithuania and had come to Chicago to show relatives her new baby when Hitler invaded her country. Her husband and son were killed, with other Jews." She later married the man who became Margolies' grandfather.
Today's immigrants from dangerous countries share that common thread: "They have been through such emotional turmoil" and have made new lives for themselves.
"I'm in awe of them. I feel so privileged," Margolies said of his coaching and videoing experiences.
Margolies has been a Palo Alto resident since 1986. He became involved with the Media Center in early 1990, first doing its newsletter then becoming executive director, a position he left in 2001 to develop special projects. He has twin sons in Southern California, and two granddaughters born in 2017.
Margolies said those who attended earlier events "already know you are in for a night of empathy, warmth, and maybe even a tear or two."Art work from the respective countries will be represented at the May 10 event, and snacks will be available.
Online RSVPs are requested to help with preparing the setup at madeintoamerica.org.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] He also writes periodic blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Correction: The column incorrectly stated the format of the May 10 Midpeninsula Community Media Center event, "When Home Won't Let You Stay: Stories of Escape and Refuge," at Mitchell Park Community Center. The five immigrants will tell their stories live and in person.