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Bringing Personal Stories to Life

Through the Narratio Fellowship, refugee students immerse themselves in filmmaking that reflects their unique perspectives.

Woman wearing mask holds camera in outdoor garden. Click to read the story.
Rayan Mohamed (left) and Felone “Abigail” Nganga work on an assignment with their video cameras. Photo courtesy of Brice Nordquist.

Felone “Abigail” Nganga arrived in the U.S. with her sister in November 2019 following a harrowing journey that began several years earlier at their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their father was assassinated by government forces, and they lost touch with their mother after she fled. With the help of a neighbor, they escaped to Kenya, where they spent four years living in a United Nations safe house for young women refugees. Today, Nganga is a senior at Henninger High School in Syracuse, and she is sharing her story. In a short film, she speaks Swahili with a resettled friend from the safe house. They discuss their families and experiences, and their hope for new lives and education. “After all I’ve been through, I never lose hope,” she says. “I always have hope that tomorrow is not going to be the same as today. No matter what you are facing today, always keep hope and always have courage.”

Nganga is one of six students from the local refugee community who created autobiographical films this summer as part of the 2020-21 Narratio Fellowship and Artist-in-Residence program. This storytelling and leadership initiative, now in its second year, is a collaboration of the North Side Learning Center (NSLC) in Syracuse, the Syracuse University Humanities Center , the College of Arts and Sciences Engaged Humanities Network, and . The program also receives support from other agencies and resources, including a grant from Humanities New York.

Narratio was founded in 2015 by Iraqi American poet, multimedia artist and social entrepreneur Ahmed Badr to empower youth around the globe through a platform for creative expression. Badr, a former refugee from Baghdad, spent time in Syracuse last year hosting workshops and collaborating with Syracuse University professor Brice Nordquist to launch the inaugural Narratio Fellowship program, which focused on poetry. He recently published While the Earth Sleeps We Travel: Stories, Poetry, and Art from Young Refugees Around the World (Andrews McMeel), which includes contributions from the 2019-20 fellows. He emphasizes that those who have been displaced shouldn’t be solely defined by that experience. “Through this program, hopefully we’re creating spaces where the fellows can transcend that aspect of their story in a way that feels authentic and makes sense for them,” he says. “It’s all up to the fellows to choose what kind of stories they want to tell.”

For Nganga, the opportunity to produce a short film was a creative way to share a part of her life’s journey and help others understand how to deal with difficult situations and problems. “When that happened to me, I didn’t know about refugees, but when I met other girls, heard their stories and started talking, I realized I’m not the only one,” she says. “I believe that by telling my story, it is going to help other people.”

Rayan Mohamed, a Henninger High School junior, calls the fellowship “the best experience ever.” She is fond of writing, storytelling and movies, but had never been exposed to the intricate details involved in producing a film. “I always dreamed of making films,” she says. “Storytelling is the place where I put my journaling and emotions. Before it was me just writing whatever. Now to put this into film for other people to view is cool.”

In My Daily Routine , she takes viewers from a ringing alarm and morning prayer through her school day, studying at a library and keeping in touch with her mom. In her closing narration, she addresses becoming discouraged and offers this reminder: “Remember to look for paradise inside your heart.”

All of the films are unique in their approach. They are powerful, inspiring and beautiful, but there is heartbreak and humor, too. The fellows share thoughts, reflections and life’s moments that have had an impact on them.

Aman Yohannes, a second-year engineering science major at Onondaga Community College, recreates his journey to America, traveling from a bustling street in Ethiopia to a room in Syracuse where friends from his native country, Eritrea, debate the direction of sunrise for prayer.

Hawa Ahmed, a Nottingham High School senior, shares the joy that art brings to her life. She choreographs a dance in a local park and, in a separate short film, playfully paints her face. “I am a work of art,” she declares.

Hibatullah Shaalan, also a Nottingham senior, turns to nature and pairs poetry with images of flowers and sounds of birdsong. “I wanted to connect to society and how we view ourselves; how we consider roses more beautiful than other flowers,” she says. “There are all these different flowers and human beings. There’s a lot of division, but in reality we’re all just like flowers.”

Isho Adan, a second-year human services major at Onondaga Community College, weaves together moments from a child’s day disrupted by a playground bully. “Go back to your country,” the bully taunts. “Nobody needs you here.” She closes the film with a poignant note to her future self: “Don’t be a bully like others. Be nice to people, stay strong and be brave…”

Learning Filmmaking in a Pandemic

Students working together on a laptop
Artist-in-Residence Ana Vîjdea G’20 assists Felone “Abigail” Nganga with editing her film. In the background is Aman Yohannes. Photo by Jeremy Brinn.

This summer’s six-week program began in July, with the formidable task of learning the creative and technical intricacies of filmmaking while adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic and following new health and safety guidelines. Four afternoons each week, the fellows masked up and spread out among tables in the NSLC’s basement classroom or joined the sessions online. They plugged away on laptops and worked with cameras and film equipment on loan from the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). They gathered for Zoom meetings with guest speakers and facilitators, including Badr from his home in Houston. Artist-in-Residence Ana Vîjdea G’20, an internationally recognized, award-winning Romanian filmmaker and former Fulbright Fellow who earned an M.F.A. from VPA, guided the fellows closely, encouraging them from start to finish. They learned about storytelling and film techniques, conducting interviews, operating equipment, and using video-editing software. They asked questions and collaborated—sharing ideas and helping each other with their projects. And through it all, they had fun. “We have a good team,” Aman Yohannes says.

At the heart of the activity was Brice Nordquist, Dean’s Professor of Community Engagement, associate professor of writing and rhetoric in the College of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the fellowship program. On any given day, he’d navigate between speakers on the screen and in the room, often maneuvering a shotgun mic among the fellows. Meanwhile, he still managed to keep the conversations rolling, asking and fielding questions and interacting with the fellows. “We figured out how to make it work in a very challenging context,” says Nordquist, a member of the NSLC’s board. “The fellows have been so determined in their purpose, so clear in what they’ve wanted to do, and have really taken up the work to bring their vision forward. They’ve been incredibly supportive of each other—thoughtful and engaged in every session with all of our guests and with each other’s work.”

Female student in mask converses with other students in classroom
Hibatullah Shaalan shares a comment during a film review as Professor Brice Nordquist looks on. Photo by Jeremy Brinn.

Nordquist was often joined by facilitators Maggie Sardino ’23 and Adiba Alam ’23. Sardino documented the summer work, writing profiles and photographing the fellows, and enjoyed building relationships with them. “It’s been an amazing experience,” says Sardino, who’s majoring in writing and rhetoric in the College of Arts and Sciences and citizenship and civic engagement in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs . “The fellows are extremely talented and have such inspiring stories. I think there’s so much everybody can learn from them.”

Alam, an international relations major in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School, admired how they shared such personal stories, often for the first time, and accomplished so much in six weeks. “Being open and trusting enough to share such a personal part of yourself, even something you may not have worked through yourself, takes courage,” she says.

Exploring Autobiographical Film

On a Wednesday in late July, Vîjdea introduces the film Dad (2014), by her fellow Romanian filmmaker and partner Cosmin Nicoara. Speaking online, Nicoara talks about both the staged and spontaneous parts of the autobiographical film, which revolves around a camping trip and a night by the fire with his father. He wanted to keep the film simple, relying on improvisation and building the narrative around his life at that time. “It was the first night in my life that I spent in the forest with my father,” he says with a laugh. “In a way, I tried to connect with him through this, film it and see how I could do a film by inserting the real effect in a fiction-like setting.”

There’s conversation about the different roles in filmmaking and how they all work together. There’s also talk about editing, terminology and noting ideas that may emerge. When filming, Vîjdea emphasizes letting unplanned things happen and being vigilant, because unexpected footage can often be useful. “Embrace accidents and be as patient as you can,” says Vîjdea, who also discusses how to get people comfortable in front of a camera. “It helps tremendously to have your camera with you every single moment of your interaction with anyone.”

Creating Stories

Several days later, Gemma Cooper-Novack, a literacy educator and writer in her second year as project manager with the program, starts off the afternoon with a storytelling workshop. She discusses different story structures, the inspiration for stories and approaches to developing ideas. “Conflict is at the heart of storytelling,” says Cooper-Novack, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education . “Every story has some kind of cycle involving conflict. The cycle is wanting, conflict and action. The conflict is somehow resolved or shifted because of action, some kind of change. That’s the overall arc of a story, and it can also be the arc of things within the story.”

After a discussion about conflict in the fellows’ favorite books and movies, they view Fishbowl , a short film by Annie Ning, who joins the Zoom group from North Carolina. Created for her senior thesis at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the fictionalized film centers on a Chinese grandmother who longs to return to China while living with her family in America, and her relationship with a goldfish. Ning fields an array of questions and discusses the challenges of pulling the film together, including recruiting a family friend who speaks Chinese to play the grandmother. She says she wanted to tell a story about Asian American identity and her family. “I was inspired by the experiences of my own family to make a film that resonated beyond that,” she says. “I wanted it to be relatable to anyone in this kind of in-between identity of being Asian and American, and I wanted it to feel universal to anyone who didn’t have that experience.”

In the final exercise of the afternoon, Cooper-Novack asks the fellows to think about whether they want to produce a character-, plot- or theme-driven story, or some combination of the three. “Write down some ideas you might have for stories for the film you want to make, for the stories you want to tell—and what the central conflict would be,” she says. The fellows gather in groups, and Nordquist and Sardino explore story ideas with them.

Documentaries, Street Photography and Activism

The next afternoon, Rajaa Elidrissi, an associate producer with the Vox video international documentary team, meets with the fellows via Zoom from New York City as Hurricane Isaias passes through. She talks about her education, professional background, and the research and other work involved in producing stories. She shares how she produced a three-part documentary series on deforestation in the Amazon and the importance of being responsible to and respectful of the communities being portrayed. When asked about writer’s block, she says, “Gas yourself up. Look for content that inspires you, and a lot of the time it might be your own.”

The afternoon continues with Narratio managing director Edward Grattan joining from his home in Austin, Texas, to discuss his work as a street photographer. “I get photos by completely dissolving into the background and getting candid shots, which I truly love, or by meeting people and asking them if I can take photographs,” he says. On the screen, he projects images of anti-police-brutality protests in Austin. He talks about his longtime love of photography, offers practical tips and explains the differences between being a photojournalist, an artist and an activist. “It’s important to me to feel a sense of connection with whoever is in the photograph or the place in the photograph, knowing that they reflect the reality of whoever they are or whatever the scene is,” he says.

Following Grattan as a guest speaker is Khadija Mohamed ’23, a 2019-20 Narratio Fellow who is on the pre-med track in the College of Arts and Sciences. An activist and poet, she shares a video of herself performing spoken-word poetry at a Black Lives Matter rally in Syracuse last spring. Everyone, she says, has a role in social activism, and she encourages the fellows to think of themselves as artists and to use their creativity to communicate their emotions. “Do what you’ve got to do and express it the best way you can,” she says. “Find your outlet—find something that lets you rock out.”

At the session’s end, Vîjdea pulls the pieces of the afternoon together, emphasizing the importance of being exposed to different approaches to art and life. “I think films and filmmaking, in general, borrow stuff from every single thing, so that’s what I encourage you to do,” she says. “Take from what you’ve heard today, everything that resonates with you, and don’t be afraid to use those things in your films.”

Bringing Ideas to Life

Over the next couple of weeks, the fellows focus on developing their story ideas and filming. The teamwork is evident as they bounce ideas off one another, offer suggestions and receive guidance. They address individual scenes, and Vîjdea asks them to describe what they have in mind, visually. “Aim for five to six shots by Monday,” she tells one fellow. “You need voice-over,” she tells another.

The films come together. Aman Yohannes shows how he’s worked with found footage from the internet to document his trip from Ethiopia. “You have potential for a very nice film,” Vîjdea says. “We can work together to get there.”

For Isho Adan’s film, the group focuses on the bullying incident. She used her sister and a cousin as actors for the scene, and Vîjdea encourages her to reshoot it and capture more emotion. “If they manage to act well, it will be a powerful scene,” she says. “Think about acting and the faces in the scene.”

Rave Reviews in a Rough-Cut Screening

Student in front of a laptop takes notes with pen and paper
Hawa Ahmed takes notes as the fellows discuss ideas for their films. Photo by Jeremy Brinn.

In August, on the final day of the summer program, there is a rough-cut screening of the fellows’ films. Guests from the NSLC and other community organizations, as well as friends, mentors and supporters, join the viewing either in person or online. The fellows receive feedback and talk about their films. “It was nerve wracking for me,” Hawa Ahmed says. “I hope everyone enjoyed it.”

Comments honor the tremendous efforts of the fellows, persevering through the summer heat and creative challenges posed by the pandemic. “I’m excited for who our fellows are and who they’re going to become,” says Cooper-Novack.

Mišo Suchý, an associate professor of film in VPA, cites the difficult circumstances they overcame and praises how each piece conveys meaning through small moments and scenes of expression. “These are very beautiful, powerful works. I’m genuinely moved. It takes guts to share these kinds of personal stories the way you did,” he says. “I want you to realize the power you have, even when the odds are against you. … You should feel good and build on what you have done and achieved.”

As summer shifted to fall, the fellows continued to polish their films, working remotely with Vîjdea in preparation for several upcoming screenings, including a virtual Syracuse Symposium showing on February 26. “This program,” Rayan Mohamed says, “is the place where you get your voice.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .

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