On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*
Dressed in a French beret, tall socks and a vintage, knit suit carrying nothing but my Pépère’s old leather handbag and a tupperware filled with my Mémère’s minced-meat pie, I walked nervously through Ellis Island determined to pass the English literacy exams and correctly answer demanding questions about my health. Inside, I was freaking out but on the outside I tried to remain calm, cool and collected for my friends behind me. It was 1895 and I, a 32 year old French Canadian wanted nothing more than to successfully make it through the grueling immigration process and enter America as a U.S. citizen.
Of course, this all took place in the gymnasium of my New Hampshire elementary school and the ‘immigration officers’ were just my teachers and parent volunteers dressed in fancy suits. My mincemeat pie was happily ‘confiscated’ for a ‘post-immigration’ party in which all of us ‘new citizens’ shared our ancestral food traditions with the other ‘immigrants.’ And oh yes, my ‘passport’ was nothing more than a flimsy piece of paper. But still, I, a fourth-grade student with a reputation to uphold, wanted nothing more than to make it through Ellis Island without being sent to the back of the line. In the weeks preceding this event, I spent hours researching the history of Quebec, interviewing my grandparents about their experiences growing up with family in both Canada and New Hampshire and learning about the dress, food, music and work of my French-Canadian ancestors. To put it mildly, I felt engaged. I felt passionate. I felt intrigued. This simple reenactment not only allowed my 8-year-old brain to consider the people and experiences behind the United States immigration history, but it also jump-started my future interests in both migration and childhood education.
Much like my elementary school’s attempt to make my education personal, my project over the next nine months with the American India Foundation seeks to incorporate culturally and socially relevant information into a local government school’s primary school curriculum. My host organization, the Aga Khan Development Network’s (AKDN) Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, restores and preserves a variety of Sufi and Mughal tombs, vast gardens, world heritage sites and other culturally rich artifacts of Islamic heritage in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi. However, just as importantly, AKDN also seeks to uplift the livelihoods of the people who live in the areas surrounding these important heritage sites. As such, they invest in public health, women’s livelihoods, housing development and most relevant to my work: education.
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