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Last Friday night, I was in Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ukraine. I smelled the jasmine and heard the mourning doves of Syria. I savored lunch in Afghanistan. I felt buildings collapse in Mexico, and witnessed the capture of a terrorist in Iraq. I met siblings and parents and grandparents, and felt the loss of those who are gone.
Why was I so fortunate? Because I am mentoring writers in a fellowship from Picture Me Here, a storytelling program for refugees, immigrants and others who have been displaced. The program helps people explore their cultural and artistic identities through their stories of migration, memory and place. Friday evening, these fellows debuted the audio versions of their first stories.
I was partnered with two young women: Sunday, of Burmese descent, and Gulsum, from Turkey. Gulsum, 30, and her husband came to the U.S. 10 years ago to get their master’s degrees (hers in economics from Penn State), never intending to stay here. In her recorded story on Friday, she recalled receiving a call from her husband with news of the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey. In that moment, she knew she could never go home.
In Gulsum’s words: “Unfortunately, the (government’s) scapegoat was the social movement called Hizmet – (whose members) believe in peace all around the world and promote interfaith dialogue – declared as the enemy of the Turkish state … My worries were because we were planning to go back to Turkey and I am (part) of the Hizmet movement and (Turkey’s president) Erdogan now could do anything to us.” Gulsum knows she will be jailed upon her return, even just to visit her parents.
Sunday – who was born to Burmese parents in a refugee camp in Thailand and who came to the U.S. at 13 – wrote: “I lived my whole life in the camp, only leaving when my family came to the United States. Because my mother could not afford to go to a hospital, I was born at home in the refugee camp and not granted Thai citizenship. But I did not have citizenship in Burma, because I was born in Thailand. I didn’t know which country I belonged to.”
As president of the international organization Writing for Peace, I am deeply committed to our mission to cultivate – through education and creative writing – the empathy that allows us to value differences as well as the hopes and dreams that unite all of humanity.
Through Sunday’s and Gulsum’s intensely personal stories – and the stories of the young Ethiopian man who had to wait 10 years to bring his mother here, the Iraqi man who had worked with the U.S. military there, the siblings from Afghanistan who cried when they remembered their grandfather, and the young woman from Syria who contrasted her life from before and during the war – I felt the empathy swell in me and the others in the room, uniting us in common hopes and dreams. In moments like these, I truly believe peace is achievable.
Sunday, now 18, says she looks forward to finally gaining citizenship – in the U.S. – and: “I hope to make a living serving others. I am so happy to achieve for what I want.”
Now who doesn’t share that dream?
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