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Amplifying Voice, Building Community

Now in its third year, the Narratio Fellowship program ignites the creativity of Syracuse-area resettled refugee students through storytelling and looks to expand the initiative to Richmond, Virginia.

A group of students stands in front of a building.

Members of the 2021-22 Narratio Fellowship poetry cohort and program mentors gather outside Point of Contact Gallery following a poetry reading there in April. The fellows were joined in the reading by young poets from Write Out, a community writing collective for local youths.

Zamzam Mohamed ’24 rediscovered her love for writing poetry last summer through the Narratio Fellowship and Artist-in-Residence program. “The Narratio program brought me back to writing again, and I can’t stop writing poems,” she says. “I’m so happy with that.”

Mohamed is among 19 fellows in the 2021-22 program, a collaboration of Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences Engaged Humanities Network, the North Side Learning Center in Syracuse and Narratio.org, a multimedia platform that gives voice to young refugees around the globe through creative expression. Since 2019, the program has welcomed resettled refugee students in the Syracuse area to pursue their interests in poetry, film and photography. With a focus on the power of storytelling, the fellows exchange thoughts and ideas, forge friendships and build community around their art. “I liked how we all came together and shared our stories and got to know each other through poetry,” says Mohamed, a chemistry major with a creative writing minor. “It intensified my relationship with the whole group. I know their stories. I know their inspirations. I like that, as a group, we always support each other.”

What I enjoyed most about being a Narratio Fellow was being constantly exposed to different cultures and realities, being able to share mine and gaining the belief that if pursued and encouraged, art can spring naturally from each person.

—Narratio Fellow Justo Antonio Triana ’25
Student stands with microphone in hand.

Narratio Fellow Zamzam Mohamed ’24, a College of Arts and Sciences student, reads her poem “Fate-faded” at Point of Contact Gallery.

Nourishing creativity, amplifying voices and building community is what Narratio founder Ahmed Badr had in mind when he established the fellowship program with Brice Nordquist, Dean’s Professor of Community Engagement and associate professor of writing and rhetoric. “It’s inspiring witnessing their artistic journeys and seeing them realize their own ability to share their own stories, on their own terms,” says Badr, an Iraqi American poet, author and social entrepreneur. “Storytelling can be daunting, but doing it within a community of supportive peers can make for a truly transformative experience. I find inspiration in the ways the fellows engage with their own creative expression, but also in the ways they support one another throughout the program.”

The 2021-22 program—which welcomed students from Syracuse city and area schools as well as Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University—offered fellows the option of exploring poetry or photography through its summer workshop and featured guidance from artists-in-residence Stefano Castro, a Colombian American photographer and filmmaker, and Khadija Mohamed ’23, a Somali American poet and Syracuse University student who was a 2019 Narratio Fellow.

Storytelling can be daunting, but doing it within a community of supportive peers can make for a truly transformative experience.

—Narratio founder Ahmed Badr

Focus on Photography

Two smiling young women stand side by side looking into a camera.

Narratio Fellows Yasmine Kanaan (left) and Rayan Mohamed have fun checking out an image while at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in Virginia, where they were facilitators for a storytelling workshop. Photo by Edward Grattan.

The photography program was initiated through a partnership with VisionWorkshops, a Maryland-based nonprofit that works with the National Geographic Society to host photo camps in underserved communities around the globe. The program coordinators were photojournalists and filmmakers Matt Moyer ’94 and Amy Toensing, an assistant professor of visual communications at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. They are National Geographic Society Explorers who have each traveled the world on assignments for National Geographic magazine and other publications, and have led numerous photo camps abroad, including one for Syrian children at a refugee camp in Jordan. They encourage workshop participants to think of themselves as photographers, even if they’ve only taken pictures with smartphones, Moyer says. “Just making that mental shift of thinking of yourself as a photographer or a visual storyteller changes the way in which you interact with the creative process.”

They joined forces with Castro and Edward Grattan, a photographer and Narratio’s managing director, assigning the cohort to explore their homes, communities and the world around them, focusing on color, light and composition. The fellows created portraits and captured scenes of their families and relationships in their daily lives. “The Narratio Fellows are amazing young people who all have such a unique but incredibly important story to tell—arguably now more than ever, given the refugee crisis we’re seeing in Europe,” Moyer says. “Working with them was inspiring, and the most fulfilling thing is getting to know them as people and how they see the world through pictures—you have, just like a poet, somebody taking a photograph who has their own perspective, their own voice, their own style and their own story to tell.”

New York City Immersion

Four women leaning over a table in a museum, looking at objects on it.

Sarah Graff (right), associate curator of the Ancient Near East Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, helps Narratio Fellows (from left) Sadiya Ahmed, Zamzam Mohamed and Yasmine Kanaan create impressions from Sumerian clay seals during a workshop. Photo by Edward Grattan.

The summer workshop also featured an ongoing collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art whose staff, via Zoom, discussed their conservation work and introduced fellows to objects in the museum’s Ancient Near East collection. With the program’s focus on object-based storytelling, these treasures serve as prompts for the fellows—inspiration pieces that may stir a memory or an insight and act as a launch pad for them to build their poems around. The program also included an immersion trip to New York City, where they visited the Met, the Bronx Documentary Center and the International Center for Photography. At the Met, they participated in a workshop making impressions with Sumerian seals, received a behind-the-scenes look at the conservators’ work, performed their poems and exhibited their photos. “There was a sense of pride among the Met staff of having the performance there, and the fellows did a brilliant job,” Nordquist says.

The fellows developed their work around the theme of caregiving, and an installation of their art, Conventions of Care: Photography and Poetry of the 2021 Narratio Fellows, runs through June 30 at the La Casita Cultural Center. Part of the Syracuse Symposium, the installation and a May 5 opening performance were among a series of events at which the fellows showcased their poetry, photography and short films. “The fellowship showed me the intersectionality of storytelling and how you can use different mediums,” says Yasmine Kanaan, a Nottingham High School senior. “There are many perspectives of art, and you need to have people from different perspectives, cultures and races look at your piece, because then your art can have more impact and you can reach more people.”

Group of students sitting on the steps outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Members of the Narratio Fellowship program gather on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Edward Grattan.

Expanding Partnerships

Brice Nordquist talking at the front of a classroom in front of seated students, artwork on the wall behind him.

Professor Brice Nordquist meets with potential fellows at a storytelling workshop in Richmond, Virginia, where Narratio will hold a program this summer. Photo by Edward Grattan.

On a March evening at the North Side Learning Center—a family literacy organization that serves as home base of the fellowship program—Nordquist sits at a table with sisters Yasmine and Ryanne Kanaan ’25 and Rayan Mohamed, a 2020 fellow who’s a Henninger High School senior and an incoming Syracuse University film student. They’re meeting on Zoom with Badr, Castro and Grattan to discuss an upcoming visit to Richmond, Virginia. In collaboration with ReEstablish Richmond, a nonprofit that helps refugees resettle in the community there, Narratio is launching a fellowship program in Richmond this summer and wants to introduce the community to the initiative. “Think of yourselves as facilitators—you are experts in this experience now,” Badr tells the fellows. “What would you want potential fellows to know, and how would you support them throughout these workshop exercises?”

Nordquist encourages them to talk about the importance of storytelling. “You get buy-in around the power of stories and how they can help you realize things about yourself and the world around you, but also move people to action,” he says. “The goal is to get them to think about themselves as artists and their connections to art even if they’re not ready to say, ‘I’m an artist.’”

I loved meeting all the new potential fellows and hearing their unique stories. Sharing my poem was not as scary as I thought it would be. I felt comfortable and honored that all those people wanted to listen to what I had to say.

—Narratio Fellow Ryanne Kanaan ’25

The trip was a success. Among the highlights, Badr cites the storytelling workshop, calling the fellows’ engagement with potential fellows “a powerful experience—especially since a central goal of Narratio is this long-term activation across leadership, storytelling and representation.”

Ryanne Kanaan ’25 characterized the trip as “surreal and wonderful.” She was a workshop facilitator and performed her poem “Yellow Bus” before an audience at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “I loved meeting all the new potential fellows and hearing their unique stories,” says Kanaan, a Syracuse University student on the pre-health track. “Sharing my poem was not as scary as I thought it would be. I felt comfortable and honored that all those people wanted to listen to what I had to say.”

Courting Creativity

Fellow Justo Antonio Triana ’25 emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. in 2019 and is now in his first year as a classical civilization major at Syracuse. He’s written poetry since he was young and gravitated to the Narratio Fellowship, seeing it as a way to develop his writing in English, grow creatively, share his work with a group and explore new forms of expression and voices. “What I enjoyed most about being a Narratio Fellow was being constantly exposed to different cultures and realities, being able to share mine and gaining the belief that if pursued and encouraged, art can spring naturally from each person,” he says.

Over the past three years, North Side Learning Center Executive Director Mark Cass ’80 has watched Narratio Fellows come together and create in workshops, support each other and stay connected. He recalls how one participant was painfully shy and didn’t consider himself a writer. The fellowship gave him confidence to discover his voice, speak out and coach others. It’s one of several transformative experiences Cass mentions when he thinks about the role the program plays in the fellows’ lives and all that they have accomplished. “The quality of what they produce together as a team is off the charts,” he says.

And, as Ryanne Kanaan notes, “I’m happy that I got to meet so many people who I can trust with my art.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .

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