Warfare, terrorism, corruption, climate change and other calamities have spawned an unprecedented global-scale human migration crisis. The United Nations has reported that, for the first time in the post World War II era, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide is approaching 60 million. Untold suffering is occurring on a daily basis as people flee their homelands desperately seeking refuge in foreign lands.

In 2014 alone, nearly 70,000 refugees from Africa, Southwest and Southeast Asia, and Latin America were accepted into the United States. More than 1,800 were resettled in Colorado, where they struggle to learn English, find employment, food and shelter, navigate government bureaucracies, earn citizenship, and relate to an unfamiliar culture and natural environment. There seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between their own life experience and that of local Coloradoans.

Or is there?

Participants in the “Roots Project”– an inspiring collaboration in Greeley, Colorado, between a refugee center, college students, and a local history museum – are building a vital link between these two worlds by learning to be present with the past. This is helping our refugee communities not only to re-make their broken world, but also to cultivate the well being of their members and the greater community as a whole by embracing their own pasts and sharing their stories.

It turns out that hands-on encounters with Northern Colorado’s 19th and early 20th century immigrant heritage awaken a sense of the familiar in the minds and hearts of refugees. While a blacksmith’s forge, sawmill, and adobe house might be vestiges of a distant past to many locals, to refugees they evoke the homes they left behind, places imbued with both tragic and treasured memories. As a young African participant said,

I saw many things and it reminded me of home… Like the farmers. And the houses. How the houses were like my own houses. And the most important one that reminds me was the man with the saw. Because it reminds me of my father’s work. My late father’s work. He was a carpenter. So he did most of this. So when I see that one I recall … when he was alive and what he was doing.