By the time Iraqi native Ibrahim Shkara arrived in the United States three years ago, he had been uprooted twice: First from his home in Baghdad when he was eight years old, and then from his adopted home in Egypt eight years later.
And then suddenly he was living in Portland, Maine, trying to get used to snow. He was grateful to be in America — “dreamland,” he calls it — but he also was dislocated and unsure where he fit in.
Until he found the Telling Room.
The tiny nonprofit arts organization runs Young Writers and Leaders, a nine-month after-school program that gives immigrant and refugee students a place to practice English and — more importantly — safely share their personal stories.
“The tool of writing is a really big thing,” said Shkara, now 19. “They helped me find who I am and accept myself.”
The Telling Room is one of a dozen organizations nationwide that were recognized by the White House this week for running exceptional arts-based after-school programs. Also among the winners was CityDance, a D.C. organization that brings dance to more than 150 children in six D.C. Public Schools.
One youth participant from each winning program traveled to the White House to accept the honor from First Lady Michelle Obama. Telling Room officials chose Shkara to accept the award on their behalf. He had seemed transformed by the program, said Executive Director Heather Davis.
At first, “he was just sort of disoriented. He was like, ‘Where am I, where is my home?’” she said. But then Shkara wrote poetry that revolved around questions of home, and homelessness. He read that poetry out loud at a Telling Room event, in front of an audience. “He almost cried,” Davis said. “He realized, ‘Whoa, this is my identity.’”
“I am a person who has lived in three different countries on three different continents, but I still don’t know where my home is,” Shkara wrote in his poem “Cairo Kid,” which will be published in an upcoming book of young people’s works.
Publication of student pieces is a key part of the Young Writers and Leaders program, which serves about 30 immigrant and refugee teens per year, offering them mentoring not just in writing but also in financial planning and the college application process.
Maine has a reputation for being a majority white state, without as much diversity as more urban locales. But Portland and Lewiston have been resettlement communities for families from all over the world, Davis said.
The Telling Room has worked with children from at least 20 different countries, including many in Africa, the Middle East and Central America. As demographics shift, the Telling Room sees storytelling as a critical way to help immigrant and refugee teens feel as if they’re part of, and belong to, the wider community.
That is an aspect of the organization’s mission that feels even more important in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the ensuing political debate about whether to accept Syrian refugees, said Andrew Griswold, a spokesman for the Telling Room.
“I think our program shows that offering an ear to newcomers and inviting them to share their story publicly is a critical step in settling them in a new home,” he said. “Teens are especially vulnerable to feelings of isolation and alienation, so we offer a direct way for them to speak to the community at large. Portland’s connection to the immigrant and refugee community is stronger because our program helps humanize the refugee experience.”
Telling Room officials said they are hopeful that the White House recognition will help them raise funds to make sure that every child who wants to take part in Telling Room programs has the opportunity.
The Young Writers and Leaders program has a waiting list every year, and some students apply multiple times and never get in.
Shkara completed the program last spring and is now a senior in high school. He is applying to college and aiming to become a petroleum engineer. He says that though he might never get used to the snow, he does feel connected to Portland.
“I feel at home,” he said. “I think the U.S. is a place I would live for the rest of my life.”
Young Writers and Leaders is just one of nine programs run by the Telling Room, which reaches a total of 2,500 children per year on a budget of $500,000.