On a Wednesday evening in late January, six local high school and college students gather around a table in the library room of the North Side Learning Center (NSLC), a family literacy organization that provides tutoring and other services for members of the resettled refugee and immigrant community in Syracuse. Over the past year, these students have been on a journey together, writing, revising, collaborating and performing poems. At the outset, none would have described themselves as a poet.
But that has changed. Big time.
On this night, they are two days away from a reading at Syracuse University’s Community Folk Art Center. They talk about their introductions, rehearse their lines and give feedback to one another. Line after line, stories unfold and conjure vivid imagery:
I then heard the sound of grandfather asking me / where is the house key? / I don’t know, jede. / Will we be back to use this key again? —Nidaa Aljabbarin, Onondaga Community College sophomore.
Someone shouts: War has come! War has come! / Young boys are running, / mothers are crying, sisters are hiding. —Ibraheem Abdi, Syracuse University junior.
My hooyo [mother] would wake up before dawn and begin to prepare the sweet dish. She / would do anything to make sure we didn’t go to school hungry. —Abshir Habseme, Henninger High School senior.
Guriga means home in Somali. / Back in my Guriga a sword is a sign of protection and a level of respect. / It lived on my father’s, my Aabe’s side, just like we did. —Abdirizak Noor, Onondaga Community College sophomore.
“Naag iska dhig” / Play the role that women have played / but they don’t know / “Naag iska dhig” are words of encouragement —Khadija Mohamed, Syracuse University first-year student.
We walk on the red sand streets, there are early buses driving by kicking dust. —Istarlin Dafe, Henninger High School senior.
As they take turns, they receive encouragement from one of their mentors, Brice Nordquist, assistant professor of writing and rhetoric in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. “You should feel comfortable representing yourself the way you want to be represented, but I think it would help people to know who are you, where are you coming from, why are you in front of them reading a poem,” Nordquist says. “People are coming to hear you read your pieces, so you should own the stage when you have it.”
The six are among 11 refugee youths, ages 17 to 21, from the North Side Learning Center community who were selected to participate in the inaugural Narratio Fellowship and Artist-in-Residence Program, a collaboration of the center, the Syracuse University Humanities Center and Narratio.org, a global media platform dedicated to empowering youth through creative expression. “I love this diverse group,” says Abdi, a social work major at Falk College. “We’re especially all about good vibes.”
Fostering Creative Expression
Narratio was founded in 2015 by Ahmed Badr, a former Iraqi refugee who views storytelling as a way to “activate the power young people already hold,” he says. He wanted to provide a publishing space where they could define storytelling on their own terms and introduce their creative works—poetry, art, photography and stories—to the world. He says too often people assume stories of resettled refugees are about tragedy and displacement—and that’s it. “It’s still a very important part of the story, but it’s not the entire story; individuals move on,” says Badr, a poet, multimedia artist, United Nations Young Leader and senior at Wesleyan University. “With this program, we said, ‘What do you want to tell the world? What do you want to share?’”
In 2006, when Badr was 8 years old, his family’s home in Baghdad was bombed by militia troops. His family departed for Syria, where they lived as refugees for over two years before gaining approval to resettle in the United States. Eventually they settled in Houston, and Badr began writing a blog as a high school sophomore to preserve memories of his childhood experiences. “I wanted to figure out what it meant to be an Iraqi American Muslim refugee,” he says. “What do all those words mean together, what are the tensions between them? This blog was nice for me, but I thought why not open it up to everyone, all young people from around the world.”
Badr also related to the trials and tribulations that teenagers experience—trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in, what their hopes and dreams are, he says. “The common thread has been this idea that everyone wants to express themselves, everyone wants to tell their story, they just need the right stage to do so and the right type of environment to foster that expression.”
Connecting with Syracuse University and the North Side
Since its founding, Narratio has published more than 300 works from contributors in over 18 countries. Badr, who has been featured on National Public Radio and other major news outlets, has given workshops across the United States and around the world, including at the Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece. In November 2018, Badr came to the Syracuse campus to give a lecture and reading as a guest of the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition, and Nordquist and his department colleague, Professor Eileen Schell, arranged for him to host a storytelling workshop at the NSLC the next day. It was a snow day for Syracuse city schools, but upwards of 60 NSLC students turned out, and Badr skillfully guided them through creative exercises. “I immediately saw the potential of somebody with this kind of shared experience with the students—somebody who is young and a more immediate model of what to aspire to,” Nordquist says. “Ahmed is a fantastic person. He connected so well with the students at the center.”
Before joining the Syracuse University faculty in 2014, Nordquist, a literacy ethnographer, worked with the Somali community in Louisville, Kentucky. In Syracuse, he wanted to continue working with local communities. He learned about the NSLC, began volunteering there and now serves as vice president of its board. He says there are dozens of languages spoken there by families from around the globe—Somalia, Kenya, Syria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, Bhutan, Nepal and Burma, among others. “I feel fortunate to have been able to connect there,” Nordquist says.
Inspired by the workshop’s success, Nordquist proposed bringing Badr back to the NSLC as an artist in residence, and Badr pitched the idea of creating a fellowship program along with the residency. With support from the NSLC and the Syracuse Humanities Center, the Narratio Fellowship program was established in 2019 as a storytelling and leadership initiative. For Nordquist, the program’s artistic focus was a way to take the fellows beyond mastering the English language in the classroom and introduce them to the broad range of storytelling through different forms of expression. It also helped the fellows carve out identities as writers. “I do think poetry was particularly effective in this context,” he says. “They were writing to perform, and poetry is an oral tradition. It’s not a stretch to say their grandparents were poets—a lot of their poems talk about elders in their communities, the lessons elders would teach in the camps, the stories they would tell, so I think there was something accessible in the form.”
Nordquist says the program recruited students who were at educational transition points—rising high school seniors and those moving from high school to college or a community college to a four-year institution. The fellows also received academic and financial advising. “A lot of these students qualify for full financial support,” Nordquist says. “A big part of this program is connecting students with resources that will help them make informed decisions about their own educational trajectories.”
Writing, Revising, Collaborating
Last summer, the fellows participated in a four-week storytelling workshop held at the NSLC and on campus. In daily sessions, they worked with program coordinators on their poetry and Skyped with a range of guest speakers—writers, poets, media professionals and activists, including National Public Radio correspondents and award-winning poet Saeed Jones. “I always thought you have to be this amazing writer to be a poet, but he told us there are many ways to write a poem and be a poet,” Abdi says. “He told us you can take your time in poetry, take your time as a writer, and so that made me think, whoa, I can really tell this story in poetry.”
The poems they created centered on physical objects in the Ancient Near East Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a partner in the program. Many of the objects date back thousands of years—an arrowhead, a goblet, a short sword and scabbard, figures. The fellows’ challenge was to select an object on the collection’s website and write an alternative description for it in the form of a poem, imagining their own stories or histories through the object.
Gemma Cooper-Novak, a poet, writing educator and Ph.D. candidate in literacy education in the School of Education, was one of several program coordinators who worked with the fellows. What stands out for her is “how deeply they care without forcing themselves into singleness of purpose,” she says. “All the fellows have complex lives and interests and integrate their connection to this program into their lives seamlessly. And I love being part of the process by which they’re changing as people but remaining fully themselves.”
The program’s collaborative environment created a mutual creative process among the fellows, who came to know and recite each other’s lines. “They feel deep ownership of their work and deep investment in each other’s,” Cooper-Novak says. “The group and all of us facilitators have supported their ideas as they revise their work, which is what a creative process is. It’s not fully internal and it’s not fully external, it’s about the joint where those meet.”
Khadija Mohamed ’23, a College of Arts and Sciences student, says the fellows grew comfortable with one another, making it easier to share their thoughts and experiences. “It was a great balance of wanting to help each other and wanting the best for each other,” she says.
As they navigated through their writing, the teamwork proved beneficial. “It was like a puzzle, connecting the dots,” Istarlin Dafe says. “They helped me, and I helped them.”
Sharing Their Stories
The summer program culminated with a trip to New York City, where the fellows visited the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, The New York Times and the website company SquareSpace. The pinnacle of the trip was a performance of their pieces in the Assyrian Royal Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the first time the fellows received an up-close look at the objects they’d based their poems on. “I was expecting my object to be a big one [plate sized], like a circle,” Abshir Habseme says, drawing chuckles from the fellows as he recalled the story. “When I went there to see it, I said, ‘Where is it? I can’t find mine.’ It was like a button.”
For Habseme, performing at the museum was a challenge, but it was the best part of the program. “I never thought I’d be speaking in public,” he says. “In ninth, 10th and 11th grade I wasn’t talking in class. Even if I needed help, I’d never ask the teacher anything because I was just silent. This changed me and gave me confidence.”
Since their summer performance at the Met, the Narratio Fellows have given several readings in the Syracuse community. The Community Folk Art Center event celebrated their work and featured “Intertwined Journeys,” an exhibition of photographs documenting the fellowship’s week of programming in New York City that culminated in their performance at the Met. For each fellow, the exhibition presented the text of their poem, a photo of their performance at the Met and a portrait, taken by Narratio managing director Edward Grattan.
At the event, Badr announces to the standing-room-only audience that the Narratio Fellows’ poems will be published in a book this fall. Then one after the other, the fellows stand and recite their poems, taking everyone with them on their individual journeys. “I am very grateful, very thankful that you took time to listen to a piece of my story,” Abdi tells the crowd.
For Mark Cass ’80, executive director of the NSLC, the success of the inaugural Narratio program is a testimony to the fellows’ commitment and teamwork. “It exceeded my wildest dreams,” he says. “The most fun thing for me was watching how they became a team, how they supported, kidded and helped each other. The trip to New York built a sense of family.”
This spring, the Narratio program will expand its family with a second cohort of fellows in Syracuse and the launch of a fellowship program in Richmond, Virginia. The inaugural group will mentor and help out in Syracuse. The NSLC community is important to them and they want to share the benefits of what they learned. Abdirizak Noor appreciates that the fellowship taught him to communicate better. “I never thought I’d write a poem in my life,” he says, “but when I did, I wanted to write more poems.”
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