Stories of Warmth, Charm, and Danger from Refugees

By Nic Darlinton

July 21st, 2017

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The patio at Modern Hotel was packed. Every seat and rock taken, and audience members lined up on both levels of the motel. They all gathered with the same purpose: to listen. To silence themselves and spend some time intentionally listening to another. I was there among them, silent and listening, and wondering what would come of it, wondering what new ideas or perspectives I would be asked to consider.

The event featured two separate and unrelated components, the poetry of Elena Tomorowitz, and then the headliner: refugee storytellers. The refugees didn’t just approach Campfire Stories at random, they are part of a collective of refugees that have been building their speaking skills to share their stories with others with the help of an honorable organization. The Idaho Office of Refugees is an important force in shaping the relationship of Boise and refugees. The Office recognizes in their mission statement that “refugees arrive in Idaho from many areas of the world, forced to flee their native lands because of persecution on account of their beliefs, opinions or ethnic heritage. Once newly arrived refugees are resettled, the IOR provides assistance and services designed to help these new Americans become integrated into their communities as productive, contributing members of society.” As part of their mission, the IOR collaborated with Campfire Stories and Amanda Ranth, a storytelling coach from Story Story Night, to create a platform for refugees to tell their stories. Anselme Sadiki, the Executive Director of the Children’s Home Society, showed both warmth and charm as the moderator of the event. His gentle humor and gracious style introduced the audience to the evening’s two storytellers.

Nalib, an Afghani-American woman, first told a tender and humorous story of attempting to be an adult before it is time to, of finding understanding and camaraderie in a loving grandmother. Her delivery was well crafted and controlled; she charms without trying. Her story didn’t dabble in history or politics; it didn’t make explicit arguments about refugees or how they should be viewed. Instead the beauty of Nalib’s story is that it is simply human, simply a thoughtfully told story of a girl striving to understand her world.

The second storyteller was Pascale, whose story launched with humor and surprise. And the shocks continued, unending twist after twist. His style is robust and intentional, building in the audience expectation and suspense before turning the direction suddenly. Through Pascale’s story, the audience came to understand more of the road from living a normal life in the Congo, to becoming a Congolese refugee, to living in a refugee camp, to being selected to come to America. His style creates these sort of punchlines that pause the audience and take a second to work through, to make sense of, but ultimately hit hard.

These two storytellers were clearly polished and poised. So to learn more about the process, I talked with their storytelling coach, Amanda Ranth, who has been working with refugee storytellers since January. She says she has been collaborating with the Idaho Office of Refugees in order “to build a speakers bureau of refugees who could tell their personal stories to the larger Boise community.” Amanda hosted a series of three workshops on storytelling, and then organized opportunities for refugees to tell their stories to a small group and get both practice and feedback. And by working closely with these refugees, Amanda has learned much about them, their stories and histories, and their cultural concepts of story.

At one point in the process of preparing stories, a refugee asked Amanda, “Why does anyone want to hear our stories?” And in answering this question we see the mission statement of Story Story Night, Ghosts and Projectors, Death Rattle, Stronger Shines the Light Inside, Big Tree Arts and so many of our compatriots. We write for each other, we tell stories for each other, we compose for each other, we create for each other; all in the hopes that it will create community, understanding, a truer perspective on who we are and what our relationships and experiences mean.

In a time where presidential policy target groups of refugees. In a month where vandalism targets Boise refugees. In this time, it is one of the many acts of fellowship: to show up face to face and see and hear who we talk about when we talk about refugees. It is one of many ways to show your support by both seeing the universal human connection in Nilab’s story that draws us together in shared experience. But also you should see the way Pascal’s story shows a personal history of strife, loss, and danger that is essential to understanding what brings a refugee to Boise. Amanda says, “They genuinely want to change hearts and minds, to meet the folks who might be fearful of their presence in the Boise community. So I would entreat people to invite a person who has never met a Refugee, to bring them to the next event. Because I think it would be very hard to meet these individuals, to hear their stories and then to wish they were not living here. They all bring so much to the table, we are truly lucky to have Refugees call this place home.”