Cleveland Humanities Festival Focuses on Immigration

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On Wednesday, March 15 the 2017 Cleveland Humanities Festival presented by Case Western Reserve University begins its second season, centered on the topic of immigration.  It seeks to bring together area cultural organizations, such as the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Cleveland Museum of Art, to tackle challenging issues. 

In response to this year's topic, Literary Cleveland presents "Crossing Borders: Immigrant Narratives" this weekend.  Director Lee Chilcote put out a call to local writers to submit their immigration stories and was amazed by the response.

"We received over 60 submissions and we ended up featuring about 25 of them.  A lot of great submissions ranging from poems to fiction to essays, from high school students who are second generation Columbian or Chinese immigrants to people investigating their family history going back generations," Chilcote said.

Writer Amy Breau will share the story of her family's history as refugees from Quebec, focusing on her great-grandfather - Joseph Breau.

Joseph Breau came to the United States from Canada in 1880 at the age of 17.  He was part of a mass migration of French Canadians to the U.S. between 1840 and 1930. 

"It's amazing how many people made this migration, half the French speaking population of Quebec.  Almost a million people crossed the border.  They were pushed out of their coastal villages by poverty and they were drawn to the comparative prosperity of the factories of industrial New England," Breau said.

During her research, Breau discovered it wasn't the first time her family had been pushed into exile.

"In 1755 our Acadian Breau ancestors had been forcibly deported by the British from their homes and farms in what's now Nova Scotia.  So in the process I've learned I'm related to the Cajun Breaus in Louisiana as well as the Acadian Breaus that remain in Canada today," she said.

Looking back from the vantage of 2017, Breau has a new appreciation for her ancestors.

"It's made me wonder what the emotional reverberations were for my family of all of that upheaval and dislocation.  So in a sense in searching the archives and searching for connection on the Breau side I'm trying to do some emotional archaeology in a way and figure out what happened in my family," Breau said.

Listen to Amy Breau read a selection from My Acadia


Sharing an immigrant story at this weekend's event as well is Breau's husband - poet Philip Metres - whose family came to North America from Lebanon in the early 19-hundreds also as refugees.  He's written a poem about his great-grandfather Skandar Abourjaili a Lebanese Christian soldier ordered to capture a Muslim man accused of diverting water away from Skandar's village.

"He was asked after others tried to apprehend the man which he did, but in the process of bringing him through the village to take him to the jail a local Christian apparently fired shots trying to gain vengeance against this man," Metres said.

In the chaos that followed Skandar was shot and the Muslim man pulled Metres' great-grandfather to safety. "In some sort of spiritual, political transaction [Skandar] decided to let the man go because he'd saved his life," Metres said.

Rather than face a jail term himself for letting the man go, Skandar and his family fled Lebanon and went into exile.

"I've always been fascinated by it because Lebanese, particularly Lebanese Christians, are not necessarily very open to Muslims, but this story encapsulates a kind of narrative where Muslims and Christians are collaborating and getting along.  That was a story that was deeply formative for me as a young person thinking that somehow Muslims were part of our family story and part of our reason for being in the United States actually," Metres said.

At the time Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire and still recognized as Syria, which adds an extra element of irony for Metres.

"On the papers for immigration into the United States they were named as Syrian immigrants and because of their exile from Lebanon.  They're essentially Syrian refugees.  So hearing these contemporary stories really struck me as part of my story and why the themes seem so timely and important for us to talk about," he said.

Listen to Philip Metres read his poem The Ballad of Skandar


Both Philip Metres and Amy Breau's stories are part of "Crossing Borders: Immigrant Narratives" presented by Literary Cleveland at Cleveland State University this Saturday and Sunday at 7pm.  It's part of the 20-17 Cleveland Humanities Festival on Immigration, happening March 15 through the month of April.

Listen to report on Tuesday, March 14 at 12:33pm on 90.3 WCPN during Here and Now featuring the Sound of Applause.




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