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good-chance-dome_calais

Photo: Good Chance Theatre
A group that was founded to dramatize the plight of refugees in Calais, France, is now performing internationally.

Theater can often bring out the empathetic and compassionate side of audience members and lead to positive change in the world. As Amelia Parenteau writes at American Theatre, a play called The Jungle that grew around a refugee camp in Calais, France, may be helping viewers to see asylum seekers as people like themselves — and motivating them to take action.

“Good Chance Theatre was started by two Brits, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, when, in 2015, they passed through Calais, France, on their way to Germany and they saw the makeshift refugee camp that had formed there.

“Many theatremakers might feel the need to share the refugees’ story with the world, but first Murphy and Robertson wanted folks in the camp to have ‘a platform to express themselves,’ explained Dina Mousawi, Good Chance’s creative producer.

“So they decided to construct a theatre there in the shape of a geodesic dome, which has since become Good Chance’s signature pop-up venue; they spent seven months there in total.

“Vincent Mangado, a Théâtre du Soleil company member who joined their effort, described that first dome as a place ‘where everything could be spoken, a place of peace, a nerve center of the jungle, where you can share stories or throw a party, not just a theatre.’

“Upon returning to the U.K., Murphy and Robertson were commissioned to write a play about their experience in Calais, which grew up into the international hit The Jungle (now at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 19). They traveled around the U.K., leading workshops with migrants and asylum seekers to continue gathering material. And cast members: The Jungle’s ensemble comprises of actors of 11 different nationalities, including some people Murphy and Robertson met in Calais who had since emigrated to Britain.

“The action of The Jungle is set in an Afghan restaurant that was built in Calais, and is staged with such an immersive aesthetic that audience members feel as though they are fellow diners at the restaurant. Along with the café, makeshift mosques, churches, shops, and other restaurants were constructed in Calais, despite extremely limited resources (just two water spigots and two porta-potties).

“Mousawi joined Good Chance in September 2018, though she had been doing similar work for years both on her own and with Complicité. In fact, she led the first Good Chance workshop in the dome in Calais with 35 Sudanese men in Arabic.

“Raised in Iraq, Mousawi left during the war to move to England, but returned to the Middle East during the height of the conflict in Syria, feeling called to help by making theatre. There she worked with Syrian women to produce work telling their stories, which only strengthened her conviction that theatre is for everybody, and should be radically inclusive. …

“ ‘Theatre can act as a tool for so many things, and one of the ways we use it is to encourage integration in areas where there might be tension.’ …

“To those audiences moved by The Jungle, Mousawi recommends reaching out to migrants recently arrived in your local community to see what you can do to make them feel welcome. ‘That’s what Good Chance is all about,’ she said. ‘Making people feel welcome, not alienated.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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Honduran Immigrant Detained By ICE Released After 6 Months In Custody

Photo: Getty Images
Two suburban moms learned that asylum seekers lack even the minimal protections of refugees and decided to do something to help them.

Although there are not many refugees coming through at the moment, those that do have official government status and a range of support services when they arrive. Asylum seekers have nothing, and if they don’t have someone to stay with until their case is heard, they are likely to be held in jail, unable to get working papers and start supporting themselves.

Two women in a Boston suburb decided they had to do something to help.

Betsy Levinson reported at the Concord Journal, “Helping asylum-seekers is a two-way street, say the two Concord women who founded a nonprofit in 2014 to offer housing and emotional support to a vulnerable population.

“ ‘Our guests have become our friends,’ said Sharon Carlson, who founded Dignity in Asylum (DIAS) with Andrea Hewitt. …

“The main mission of DIAS is to pay for transitional housing, since asylum-seekers are not eligible for any government support while they go through the lengthy and arduous process of gaining a work permit. …

“ ‘They are so vulnerable,’ said Carlson. ‘They fled persecution and had to escape to save their lives.’

“Without any contacts or resources in the area, they can wind up in homeless shelters or ‘sleeping in stairwells,’ Carlson said.

“Referrals to DIAS come from two sources — the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights and Political Asylum Immigration Representation. Once they get a referral, they send out an application for housing, followed by a meeting to assess the individual need.

“Though many are highly skilled professionals in their home countries, they usually end up in low-level jobs to earn enough to transition from DIAS-supported housing to independence. But [the DIAS founders have] never heard a word of complaint.

“ ‘There is such dignity, such gratitude, such optimism,’ said Hewitt. ‘We feel lucky and grateful. They are lovely people.’ …

“Guests stay free until they get on their feet, and stay connected to the organization after they become independent.

“The outpouring of support [has] been unexpected and overwhelming, the women say.

“ ‘The attitude is so welcoming,’ said Hewitt. ‘The business community has been so supportive.’ The organization has received grants from area churches and the community chest, among other funding sources. For more information, visit dignityinasylum.org.”

More at the Concord Journal, here. I have met these women. To me, they are glowing examples of both personal morality and how a truly civilized country could show compassion for people who take initiative against overwhelming danger. Asylum seekers, managing to get themselves here despite extraordinary obstacles, show the courage and spunk that is needed in society.

 

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Photo: Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press
A former refugee who founded the Nova Scotia chocolate company Peace by Chocolate has committed to hiring 50 refugees by 2022 and to mentor 10 refugee-run start-ups over the next few years.

Refugees that a country takes in are often the most grateful people on the planet. Most are highly motivated to succeed and not be a burden. Some start their own businesses, and then, as soon as they get established, look for ways to give back to others.

The Canadian Press reports on one example. “A one-time Syrian refugee who founded a thriving Nova Scotia chocolate company has announced plans to hire and mentor other refugees. Peace by Chocolate of Antigonish, N.S., has committed to hiring 50 refugees by 2022, and to mentor 10 refugee-run start-ups over the next few years.

“The now-famous company was founded by the Hadhad family, who fled their home in war-torn Damascus in 2012. They arrived in Nova Scotia with next to nothing in 2016. …

“Tareq Hadhad, CEO of the company, said Peace by Chocolate aims to give back to the country that welcomed his family when so many nations were closing their borders to the Syrian plight. Now he plans to expand on that vision by giving back to other refugees looking to start new lives — as Canadians did for his family when they needed it most. …

“Hadhad said in an interview, ‘Being a refugee is not a choice, it’s not a decision, it’s not a life goal. These people are fleeing their homes because of war, because of persecution.’ …

“Hadhad’s father, Assam, ran a chocolate business in Damascus for decades but it was destroyed in a 2012 bombing.”

Another article, by Fadila Chater at the National Post, notes that the “chocolate company founded by Syrian refugees has produced its first chocolate bar — and given it an Indigenous name. [Its] new milk chocolate and hazelnut bar is to be called Wantaqo’ti (pronounced Wan-tahk-oo-di), the Mi’kmaq word for peace. …

“Founder Tareq Hadhad said via email … it is his company’s mission to translate the family’s concept of peace to all Canadians, starting with the Mi’kmaq of his home province. … Other versions of the bar will be sold using the Arabic, French and Mandarin words for peace.

‘Peace is beautiful in every language,’ Hadhad said. …

“ ‘When we came here as newcomers to this country, we really wanted to support this country to grow and prosper,’ he said.”

The Peace by Chocolate bars are available online, here.

Read more at the National Post, here and at the Canadian Press, here.

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refugee-moo-paw-with-vegetables
Photo: Sean Powers
Karen refugee Moo Paw shows the vegetables she’s grown at the Neighbor’s Field in North Carolina.

I’m always interested in what Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma) are doing as they adjust to new lives in the United States — especially as I know Mia, a Karen woman in one of the Rhode Island English classes where I volunteer.

At the radio show Living on Earth (LOE), there’s an interesting Karen farming story from producer Sean Powers of Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Bitter Southerner podcast.

“BOBBY BASCOMB [LOE managing producer]: The United States has long been a place for political refugees to seek safety and put down roots, in some cases literally. In Comer, Georgia, a community garden called the Neighbor’s Field is helping refugees work through their trauma by working the land. …

“POWERS: It’s a hot Saturday afternoon in Comer, Georgia. Moo Paw is feeding her chickens, hens, goats, and ducks. There’s even a donkey. You could say they’re kind of like her babies. She is one of the many refugees at the Neighbor’s Field, who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar. That’s the country formerly known as Burma. …

“She says Burmese soldiers kidnapped her father, and used him as a porter to carry food for them. After leaving Myanmar, Moo Paw lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the United States with her husband and children. They relocated to the Atlanta area, before settling here in Comer. Her son, Tahay Than, says moving to Comer was to satisfy Moo Paw’s green thumb.

“TAHAY: My mom, where she lived in Burma or Thailand, she always liked to plant. You know, working the farm. So, when she farms, that makes her feel like she is home or something, like in a home country, mother country or something. So that’s why she moved to Comer. …

“PAW: My garden. Here vegetables. Here grass. Me planted the cucumbers this year. Here sweet potato. Very beautiful.

“POWERS: It’s that beauty that takes Moo Paw back to memories of her family. She and her son Tahay say in Myanmar, farming for their family was a way of life.

“PAW: My grandmother planted rice, peanuts. Chili, corn.

“TAHAY: Most of the time, everybody who lived in Burma, they would plant in order to survive.

“POWERS: And that makes this garden all the more meaningful. The vegetables growing here, they don’t look like your typical produce that you would find at most supermarkets in the United States. That’s because the seeds come from Myanmar and Thailand. …

“POWERS: The flavors growing in Moo Paw’s soil are just a small part of the pie. There are two-dozen plots of land at the Neighbor’s Field that are being rented by refugees from Myanmar. For a large plot, it’s a hundred dollars a year. Rebecca Smith [who versees the day-to-day operations at the Neighbor’s Field], says it’s been incredible to see how working the farm helps build community. …

“SMITH: They’re just amazing foragers, they can figure out how to cook everything and make it taste good, and it’s just stuff that we think are weeds. Like sometimes people will be out here just butchering a pig for a celebration or Moo Paw’s out here feeding her chickens and people in the garden and you just feel like you’re in a different world, not Comer, Georgia.”

More at Living on Earth, here. In North Carolina, too, there are Karen refugees working on farms. Read this at Transplanting Traditions.

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Photo: Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop
Grover from “Sesame Street” in a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. The Lego Foundation will provide $100 million over five years to the makers of “Sesame Street” and their partners for a program for refugee children.

Most of what we know about the situation of Rohingya refugees — expelled from Myanmar (Burma) for their Muslim beliefs — is pretty dire. But here and there we see positive efforts to lessen the pain of living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, especially for children. Read about this partnership among humanitarian relief organizations, Sesame Street, and Lego.

Karen Zraick writes at the New York Times, “Can play help refugee children heal from trauma?

“That’s the belief behind a new partnership formed by the Lego Foundation, Sesame Workshop and organizations working with Syrian and Rohingya refugees. In its first major humanitarian project, announced [in December], the foundation will provide $100 million over five years to the makers of ‘Sesame Street’ to deepen their work with the International Rescue Committee in the countries around Syria, and also to partner with the Bangladeshi relief organization BRAC.

“The aim is to create play-based learning programs for children up to age 6 in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Bangladesh. The programs will teach basics like the alphabet and numbers, but will also emphasize social and emotional development to counter the effects of stress and suffering. They will be offered both to displaced children and to some of their potential friends in host communities.

“Officials at the organizations involved said that helping children’s brains develop during their first years — when they are absorbing information like sponges — is crucial to helping them become healthy and successful later in life, and that play is an excellent way to do it.

“ ‘We know from child development research that the best way for children to learn is through exploring their world and play,’ said Sarah Smith, the senior director for education at the International Rescue Committee. …

“The families’ needs are great. In addition to basics like adequate food and shelter, children need to foster ties with nurturing caregivers to heal from what they have witnessed and endured, said Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a director of Global TIES for Children, a research center at New York University that will conduct testing and evaluation for the program.

‘Part of the magic of human development is that very few experiences doom a child to ruin,’ Dr. Yoshikawa said. ‘But we have to address the risks early. This is particularly critical in these first years.’ …

“Erum Mariam, a program director for BRAC, said that many of the 240 play labs the organization has created for refugees were built by the children’s fathers and painted and decorated by mothers and children.

“ ‘We place a lot of emphasis on culture and on strengthening community engagement,’ she said. Within those centers, trained facilitators focus on providing enough structure to make children feel safe, while allowing for spontaneous joy.

“ ‘When a child enters the humanitarian play lab, we want the child to feel very happy and very connected to their culture and heritage,’ she said.” More here.

You may recall I wrote about Sesame Street helping Syrian refugee children, here.

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