Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Sankar Raman immigrated to the U.S. from India to attend graduate school. After a successful career in high tech, he now applies his technical knowledge, managerial skills, and pragmatic mind to founding and leading The Immigrant Story, a nonprofit organization that fosters empathy and builds a more inclusive community by sharing immigrant stories. You can reach Sankar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I met Sankar a year ago when I was recruiting storytellers for “Voices from the Margins,” an event featuring women’s immigrant voices for the City of Beaverton Welcoming Week. I met Sankar through Dr. Daivati Bharadvaj, who I featured on the Finding Fertile Ground Podcast in July. Sankar introduced us to two of our storytellers, Monica Salazar and Olive Bakura Kaburu, who I featured as my first podcast guest.
I’ve been volunteering this year with The Immigrant Story, working on a storytelling event featuring people from Mexico and Guatemala who entered the United States undocumented, and we just launched that event on Saturday. You can view that event on YouTube. Volunteering with The Immigrant Story has given me a wonderful opportunity to work with Sankar and see his incredible vision for the organization he founded in response to the heightened xenophobia after the 2016 election.
Sankar’s been using the COVID lockdown to complete ongoing projects for The Immigrant Story and take on a 10,000-step challenge (made more difficult now that smoke and fires have blanketed the west coast and we’re temporarily unable to go outside). Sankar highlighted how the pandemic lockdown has been especially tough on immigrants, who may be extremely far away from their families in other countries. They are not only dealing with distance from loved ones, but also with the restrictions on travel. Sankar usually goes home each year to visit his family, but he hasn’t been able to get back to India this year.
Sankar grew up in a four-street village in deep southeast India, about 150 miles south of Chennai, and attended the only school in the village, which happened to be operated by his father. He describes it as India’s version of Kyoto, with thousands of temples and surrounded by silk weavers and rice paddies. Sankar wrote this about his village:
"We were conservative, almost orthodox Brahmins. We had strict rules. We married within the community. For us, our village was only these four streets where we lived. And then there were others, the non-Brahmins, who lived outside these four streets. If you were one caste lower, you lived a little further away and so on. The most outcast, the untouchables (Dalits), lived far out on the periphery of our village. There was this unspoken segregation, this apartheid of sorts...the shame of Hinduism was kind of our norm. In fact, the word pariah, meaning downtrodden and outcast, came to English from my native Tamil. I came from a family that was not rich, but being a Brahmin meant that I was privileged."
His father was determined to make education accessible to all, including the Dalit community, which became a bit of a scandal. "He really wanted everyone in that village to go to his school, irrespective of which caste they belonged to," said Sankar. "He truly believed that if you get your education, you can get out of your poverty."
Sankar and his friends could walk through the open door of any house and know they would be welcomed and fed. His parents didn’t worry about him returning until 8 or 9 at night because they knew the community would feed him and take care of him.
As a young person lacking newspapers, books, and TV, Sankar and his friends entertained themselves by telling stories. He realized that the most popular kids were the good storytellers, and everyone just enjoyed each other’s company by sharing stories.
He pleaded with his father to send him to a school in another town because he wanted to get out. Finally, he let him leave for eighth grade. He went to high school in a nearby city, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy for short).
When Sankar graduated from college, unemployment in India was around 28 percent, or even up to 50 percent in some communities, like the one where he grew up. He feels fortunate to have grown up with an enriching childhood with great culture, food, family, friends, and lots of cricket...but they had many uncertainties about the future. He still feels a strong connection to his community and tries to make it back to India each summer.
I asked Sankar what kind of messages he received about colonialism as a child. He told me that India doesn’t talk much about colonial issues, but instead celebrates freedom fighters like Gandhi. In his experience, they don’t even talk much about the partition, the bloody event in 1947 when the subcontinent was divided along sectarian lines as India gained independence from the British Raj. The northwestern, predominantly Muslim sections of India became Pakistan; the northeastern part became Bangladesh; and the southern and majority Hindu section became India. At least 10 million people fled north or south, depending on their faith, and more than 500,000 were slaughtered. Trains full of refugees were attacked by militants from both sides, and the passengers were massacred.
Sankar pointed out that in some ways it’s good that India doesn’t talk about these things because they are looking forward. When he was growing up, cricket provided a connection to their colonial masters.
He ended up moving to the U.S. for graduate school, earning a Ph.D. in engineering at Purdue University. Before he left India, he went back in his village to get blessings from the community elders. One of the elders told him,
“You know you are the first one from our community to go to the US to do a PhD. Don't think you did all these by yourself. You are going to the US because of your father's good karma. He educated this whole village.”
Sankar moved to Oregon while he worked for Intel. During his first trip here he visited Multnomah Falls, and he thought Oregon was “heaven on the earth.”
He arrived in the United States as a big vegetarian, but on his very first day after arriving in Lafayette, Indiana, he went to McDonald’s and ate meat for the first time. He found it difficult to be a strict vegetarian in the middle of meat and potatoes country.
In spite of the jokes about Indiana politics he couldn’t understand, he found a strong community at Purdue and he still remains connected to them. Because of his village upbringing, he is driven to connection and builds a community wherever he is.
When I asked Sankar which obstacles he’d overcome in his life, he said he felt like he has had a good life and he wouldn’t want to compare his own life to the people he has interviewed.
Sankar strongly supports the Black Lives Matter movement and credits Black activists for easing the way for immigrants.
“Because of the civil rights that African-Americans fought for and got over the years, that really helped the immigrants of color such as me. I always think of the 1965 Immigration Act, which was enacted after the Civil Rights Movement and signed in, that allowed me personally to come to this country...and that is the result of the Civil Rights Movement.”
He notes that xenophobia is one form of racism, and immigrants of color are always treated as part of an “othering” process.
In interviewing a lot of immigrants from African countries, Sankar and The Immigrant Story team have found that these African immigrants have to deal with the same kinds of racism, even though their history and perspectives are different than African-Americans.
His organization has examined other subtle forms of racism, like photography. They deliberately defined how they photograph people of color, especially refugees, and make themselves aware of their implicit bias.
Sankar referred to the 2018 issue of National Geographic dedicated to race. Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s first female and first Jewish editor, hired John Edwin Mason, a University of Virginia professor specializing in the history of photography and Africa, to examine the magazine’s history with race. Until recently, National Geographic was dominated by white men. They often used a colonial, superior lens to photograph their subjects. National Geographic did a full accounting of its past racist sins and committed to being more culturally sensitive in its photography and writing.
Sankar says this conversation needs to be talked about more. How do we talk about these stories? He referred to a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, when she elaborates on the colonial influence on our storytelling. As an early reader and writer, Adichie’s own early stories featured white children, eating apples and playing in the snow...hardly reflecting her own experience in Nigeria. Sankar and his team are actively working to change these things in The immigrant Story. He is grateful to Black Lives Matter for getting these conversations going, decluttering the mind’s eye, and making us aware of our biases.
We spoke about the rise in white nationalism across the world. Sankar acknowledges that he’s been living in the U.S. longer than in India, so he’s aware that his perspective of the country is different than if he had been living there all along. India is the only surviving democracy and secular country in that part of the world. Although multicultural, multireligious, and multiracial, the country has a long way to go to have conversations about interfaith and intercultural relations. The nationalist movement is gaining power in India as in other places around the world, and Sankar hopes it’s just a passing phase.
He spoke about The Immigrant Story’s project, “To Bear Witness,” about surviving genocide.
“These genocides happen if you don’t pay attention to race relations getting worse and worse, and before you know it, you get this type of genocide like what happened in Rwanda.”
I asked him if he has seen an increase in white nationalism and xenophobia in recent years in the way he is treated each day. When he arrived in the United States, everyone like him was considered to be Iranian, and he frequently heard people say “Go home.” “For any immigrant of color, you encounter ‘go home’ time and again.”
As Dr. Daivati Bharadvaj shared a similar thought, he’s learned he needs to avoid certain places, especially after certain hours, and it’s always on his mind. Every decade the issue and scapegoat are different, but the othering happens all the time. He’s afraid that this election cycle, Asian-Americans will get the brunt of it.
The xenophobia after the 2016 election prompted him to start The Immigrant Story. After retiring from Intel, he’d been focusing on photography, traveling through India, Japan, and the East Coast, and capturing his travels digitally. He would write captions for his photos, and the captions became longer and longer until they became stories.
Then in February 2017, a man attacked two Indian engineers and a good samaritan in Kansas as they were out for happy hour, and one of the men died because the killer thought they were Iranian. This incident triggered a memory for Sankar. He remembered someone hitting him in a bar for no reason not long after he arrived in Indiana. The man had thought Sankar was Iranian. A few days after this attack, Sankar began calling newspapers to see if he could provide immigrant photos and stories as a volunteer to tell another story about immigrants.
Sankar decided he needed to start telling the stories of immigrants, especially immigrants of color, by expanding his photography and captions. He registered the domain name for The Immigrant Story, and then he officially opened the nonprofit in April with seven stories. Then in May, the MAX attack happened in Portland, devastating our city and exposing white nationalist hatred.
Sankar didn’t know anything about writing, though, and he was relying on his wife to edit the stories. After his wife told him his English was atrocious and he needed to find an editor, he put an ad in his neighborhood Next Door site, and people came to help. Caitlin Dwyer Young responded, and she became The Immigrant Story’s first editor. “She is still with us,” said Sankar. “I am so grateful for her for shaping this in those early days.”
Now The Immigrant Story has about 50 volunteers. They bring a great deal of experience and passion for the topic. To date, they have interviewed 160-170 people and published more than 150 stories. In the last few years, the organization has begun delving into other initiatives (live storytelling events, photography exhibitions, videos, podcasts, and educational curriculum), but the core to the nonprofit is writing the stories and doing the photography. In 2019, The Immigrant Story was named as Portland's Best New Nonprofit at the Portland Monthly Light a Fire Awards.
Sankar continues to feel passionate about the immigrant stories.
“I really love these stories. I don’t need to go to all the interviews, because other people conduct them. But I find excuses to go to them. I attend almost all of the interviews because I really do want to hear the stories. And as you know, I can’t keep my mouth shut. I ask questions. I’m in the middle of these interviews. I really, really enjoy listening to these people’s stories...I am so blessed to hear them. Some of them are very tough to hear. Every one of them moves you.”
He’s fascinated by the resilience in these stories.
“The thing that strikes me is the human resilience....how in spite of all these hardships, we are able to get out and find a home here, and be a part of this American dream...and create a family. That is a beautiful thing.”
It’s amazing that the immigrants they interview don’t hate people...they want to give back, even though they’ve seen the worst conditions or the worst crisis humanity has faced. They make it as their mission to serve others. We spoke about Olive, who made it her mission to go back to the refugee camp in Tanzania where she grew up.
Sankar recalls that one refugee said, “America is full of angels.”
We acknowledged that it’s hard for us to see our country that way right now.
“The core of America is all about giving, and I think we do have that heart. And we need to go back to that.”
He shared examples of counselors, teachers, and principals making an impact in young immigrants’ lives, like the story of Heriberto Bolano, who was a part of a gang until a high school janitor told him he’d better clean up his life if he wanted to survive. And he mentioned Dr. Elizabeth Flores, whose cross-country coach encouraged her to take honors classes and apply to college, and then he even dropped her off in college. America still has a heart.
“The humanity of America lives in the resilience of its people, and how much we want to give back, which in turn makes us realize America is full of angels.”
I knew Sankar loves to cook, and I discovered he and approaches cooking as a scientist and has a website with his recipes. When he was growing up, boys never went into the kitchen, so he didn’t learn how to cook as a child. When his mom learned he was going to America, however, she got worried...so she invited him into the kitchen and he learned how to cook. His mom still supplies him with her family recipe of sambar powder each time he returns to India.
He loves to photograph spots in Oregon like Bandon Beach, the Four Corners, our National Park System, Japan, and India, and you can view some of his photos here.
I asked him which grit and resilience story has inspired him in his life, and he mentioned the genocide survivors they have interviewed. After you survive genocide, what do you do? People who spent most of their time in a refugee camp go on to create their own skills and survive, make a family and career, and go on with life.
He recommends that parents expose their children to stories of resilience.
“We are all human beings, hard wired for resilience. If you believe in evolution, you would think that you won’t survive and be here but for the human resilience DNA that we have. So I think what parents can do is to tell your kids, ‘hey, you are hardwired for this. You are hardwired for coming out of any situation you are dealing with, even if you were dealt with bad cards.”
He recommends that people read some of the stories they have documented.
If you’re in Portland, visit the photo exhibits at the Oregon Historical Society and at the Portland International Airport.
On the next episode, I’m excited to feature Marie Cecile Anderson and Katy Frame, who make up the NYC-based musical comedy duo known as Reformed Whores.
They’re on a mission to empower, normalize the female experience, and bust a few guts in the process! They are cohosts of the Difficult Women podcast, which is a fantastic combination of current affairs, feminism, social justice, and funny, irreverent conversation—plus a lovely blend of women’s friendship.
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