PORTLAND, Maine — On Thursday morning, 18-year-old author Ibrahim Shkara didn’t have to keep the secret anymore: He’s heading to the White House on Tuesday.

Shkara is one of about 90 students accepted into nonprofit The Telling Room’s special writing program to help young immigrants and refugees in the Portland area improve their language and leadership skills.

On Tuesday, the program will formally accept an annual White House award given to the top youth arts and humanities programs. The Portland-based Young Writers and Leaders program was one of 300 such programs to apply, one of 50 finalists and one of 12 winners.

The 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award comes with a $10,000 prize for the program and gives it attention that The Telling Room’s leaders hope will help support a search for major gifts to expand the program.

The award is given by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The program could expand to Lewiston and either South Portland or Westbrook — other areas of the state where an increasing number of immigrants and refugees are settling — according to Telling Room communications director Andrew Griswold.

The Telling Room’s program has included students from about 20 different countries over five years, with every participant going on to college. It is one of many programs at the nonprofit, which at its start offered writing instruction in area schools to complement language arts classes.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo, who has a home in Maine, praised the program and its national award in a prepared statement.

“The Telling Room doesn’t just teach kids to be better writers,” Russo said. “It teaches them that their stories are worth telling, that their life experiences are valuable and worth sharing.”

The program for immigrants and refugees focuses on language skills, but Shkara said in an interview last week that it’s more than just that.

“Before I entered The Telling Room, it was hard for me to show anyone what I write,” Shkara said. “But now I’m kind of confident. I could give you my writing and could meet you in the street and show you what I wrote.”

During a class last week, students shared parts of their writing that recalled memories from years ago — some that students said they’d never really shared with anyone, in writing or otherwise.

Shkara said he thinks of writing as “free therapy” that has helped him understand his feelings and his life, being raised in Baghdad, moving to Cairo after the start of the Iraq War and then to the United States three years ago.

He has gained confidence, but he said he’s still a little bit nervous about meeting first lady Michelle Obama next week. He’s not sure what chance he’ll get to speak with her, but if he does, he said he’d like to tell her how the program has helped him gain a better understanding of himself.

“This program has just changed my life, basically,” Shkara said.


Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.