The women formed a long line in the airport lounge, patiently waiting as they were shifted around like baggage by immigration officials. They were South Asian maids waiting to return home from a wealthy gulf Arab nation, and the vision of what their lives must be like struck me. So far away. So different a life. So great a sacrifice.

In a modest trailer in rural North Carolina, the Guatemalan woman wept as she wondered what to do. The meatpacking plant had let her go because she had been hurt and could no longer do the assembly-line work. But her relatives who were taking care of her children back in her mountain village told her not to return home since there was no work for her there, either. Another woman drawn by the dream of a better life to a lonely, distant place.

It was these images of women, crossing borders, creating new lives, that convinced me to propose a project at the Chicago Tribune about the feminization of migration. There was, as I discovered, a vast trove of research describing the massive changes taking place in the lives of predominantly poor, uneducated women around the globe. But these parades of female humanity, absent the celebratory frivolity of most parades, had somehow been rendered invisible to all but those whose lives were touched by these migratory journeys.

I could find no articles in any U.S. newspaper that wove the threads of this tale together. There was nothing to explain to an American audience that for the first time as many women as men now transport themselves, and sometimes a few worldly goods, across national borders. Nor have Americans learned from the press that there are as many good as bad forces pushing women to start their lives anew in a foreign land.

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"A Visual Telling of Immigrants’ Stories"
– By John OwensAt its core, this is a story about victory and defeat, about vulnerability and strength. It is about women being freed from traditional bonds and taboos, even while many are fleeing wars or escaping from horrible enslavement. These are some of the elements I saw in this story when I pitched it to the Chicago Tribune’s WomanNews section. This part of the paper had recently published a largely photo-driven series about the decades of women’s lives, and I envisioned the treatment of this topic to be similar — a project driven by photographs and tightly written scenes. In telling these stories, there would not be a need for outsiders’ analysis. I also believed that because Chicago is a city of immigrants, such a project would resonate with many in our community.

Geoff Brown, the associate managing editor for features, liked my proposal, especially the idea of telling the story through the lens of moments, or scenes, and not relying on long narratives. I’d offered as an example the story about a women’s departure; we’d tell our readers what she was carrying in her suitcase on the day she left home and why the items she selected mattered to her.

Choosing Stories to Tell

With Geoff’s approval, along with that of Cassandra West, the WomanNews editor, we assembled a group of reporters. The decision was made to use only one photographer so the series’ themes would be conveyed with a consistent visual perspective. That became Heather Stone’s job. My reporting colleagues were Monica Eng, T. Shawn Taylor, Meg McSherry Breslin, and Patrice Jones. I was the only male reporter assigned to this series and one of only two (along with Patrice) who’d been a foreign correspondent.

For us to learn how best to approach our reporting, we met with experts, dug through scholarly and government reports and, as a group, came up with a strategy. What we decided was to tell the story of the feminization of global migration from the perspective of three key moments in the journey: when these women — many of whom are mothers traveling without their children — left their homes, as they traveled, and when they arrived.

Not only have women’s passages changed immigration patterns, but also the migratory journey changes women. The moments we hoped to capture would reflect these transformations, and women from every part of the world, every age group, would illuminate them. Because we also wanted our readers to realize how their family’s experiences — and their own — provided them common ground, we asked seven female reporters and editors, each of whom was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant mother, to tell how their mothers’ journeys affected their lives.

Besides reporting we did in the Chicago area, we traveled to New York and Los Angeles and then to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. These foreign destinations were where we decided to begin the stories about women on the move. These choices made sense due to Chicago’s large and growing Latino population. In addition, we knew we would want to share this series with Hoy, the Tribune Company’s Spanish-language daily, so this gave us another reason to focus primarily on the movement of women migrants from south of our border.

RELATED WEB LINK
"Crossing Borders"
– chicagotribune.com
As we began working with colleagues at the Tribune’s Web site and with those who work on graphic presentation of news, more opportunities to bring this reporting to different audiences opened up. With the help of multimedia producer Christopher Booker, a Web page provided a way for the voices of the women we talked with in Central America to be heard. This option gave readers a tactile link with the women we wrote about in our stories. Danielle Gordon, a producer with Chicagotribune.com, who oversaw the creation of the Web page, crafted a visual presentation that gave viewers a sense of what it feels like to start such a journey.

Using the Web opened up amazing ways to share these stories; it also allowed us to write more than we could fit in the newspaper. Given this new way to display our work, we experimented with writing that at times baffled copyeditors. It seemed unorthodox — and it probably would have been if the stories had only been targeted to appear on newspaper pages — but most of our reporting did get published, on one medium or another.

Working in more than one medium enriched our work. Heather’s eye for detail — and her insistence on it — gave us images that truly captured the journeys’ pivotal moments. In a story we told about a young Guatemalan woman who died trying to cross the Arizona desert, we’d met her family in Guatemala but hadn’t gone to the place where she and so many others had lost their lives. So Heather and I went to find this spot in the desert, and while in Arizona we also covered several daily stories about the record surge in deaths of migrants crossing from Mexico. Without going to this place, there would have been a visual hole in the documentary that Tribune videographers Brad Piper and John Owens were preparing along with us, not to mention the absence there would have been in the photo essay Heather prepared about women heading north from Central America.

Could we have done more? Clearly, yes. Could our project have had more space than the 10 pages it had in the newspaper? Probably. But what we did was to tell an important story that had not been told in this way before. Our reporting now seems quite prescient given the intense focus on illegal immigration.

On December 28th, the day the project ran, Seka Palikuca, who works on the Tribune’s business copy desk, faxed a copy of her story about her mother’s journey from Yugoslavia to her mom, who’d been a chemist in her former country. When Seka was growing up, her mother worked in factory jobs, as a nanny and a janitorial supervisor to support her family. Seka wrote about how she learned from her mother how to become a self-sufficient woman. Later that morning, she called to find out what her mom thought about her story. Her mother couldn’t come to the phone; she was holding the story and crying.

Stephen Franklin is a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. A former foreign correspondent in the Middle East, he will be working overseas next year as a Knight International Press Fellow with the International Center for Journalists. The project described in this article — its photo show, documentary film, and stories — is available online at www.chicagotribune.com/borders

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