March 18, 2019
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Young refugees tell what it’s really like to come to Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — At a classroom looking out over Commercial Street, poetry conjures memories of “home” for young people for whom the concept is elusive — and often painful.

One student remembers a sunrise near a cold river in Iraq. Another describes a boat ride, coming to a clearing and seeing a massive, lone tree, “the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“What kind of tree?” another student asks.

“I don’t know, it was big,” she replies, gesturing up and out. “A tree.”

They are memories of upbringings far away that students are writing down, reading aloud and discussing for the first time, in The Telling Room’s Young Writers and Leaders program.

It’s the start of the process that, over five years, fed the writing of poetry and stories collected in the program’s 11th anthology titled ” A Season for Building Houses,” with 30 stories and poems reflecting on home.

“We all relate to where we come from,” Molly McGrath, The Telling Room’s director of publications, said. “And when you’re pulled out of your home, how does that relate to where you are and who you are?”

The yearlong after-school class — which last week won the nation’s top honor for youth literacy programs — uses poetry, prose and nonfiction as a way to teach language and leadership skills to young immigrants and refugees recently arrived in Maine.

Students from more than 20 countries have participated, and the program is raising money to expand its scope to other communities in the state where new immigrants have resettled, including Lewiston, Westbrook and South Portland.

“The focus is to give them the space to be who they are and share their experience,” Molly Haley, co-director of the Young Writers and Leaders program and director of The Telling Room’s multimedia programs, said.

Haley sees potential for broader social impact from the program and the words and stories of these young new voices in Maine.

“Imagine being forced / to label all your knowledge as useless, / finding that your language, culture, and religion / would not help you,” Mohamad Awale wrote in his poem titled “How Marvelous It Is.”

Some of the specific stories featured in the book and brought out through the program have focused discussions about arriving in Maine, Haley said, such as the short essay Yann Tanguy Irambona wrote about joining the swim team at Deering High School.

“I remember when I was at a team dinner, and my Burundian friends and I were excluded from the circle,” he wrote. “They don’t care if we exist and make me feel that I do not belong here.”

Haley said his story has since been read at Deering and elsewhere.

“When you share stories, it connects us, but it also opens up a whole dialogue that might not naturally happen unless a student or someone is brave enough to say this is happening,” Haley said. “And students aren’t often enough given an opportunity to be heard in that way.”

Deering student Ibrahim Shkara, whose poem “Cairo Kid” starts The Telling Room’s new book, said his writing also lets him hear himself, what he calls “free therapy.”

Shkara will be at the White House on Tuesday to accept the 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award with the organization’s leaders. With the publication and national attention, Shkara said he doesn’t think of writing for a living, but he can’t imagine living without it.

“I’m not going to stop writing,” Shkara said. “It could be my best friend for the rest of my life.”

Hanen Mohammad said since she started writing she discovered an uncle who lives in Iraq is a poet and has opened up new literary exchanges with her father.

“I show him my writing, and we talk about it,” she said. “He actually helps me write in Arabic, because I don’t have the vocabulary or the language that is just … strong and captivating.”

Shkara and Mohammad said beyond letting others know how they feel, writing gave them a way to survey and examine their own thoughts and better understand themselves.

“Sometimes we change a lot and we don’t even realize it,” Mohammad said. “I think I want to know how I change. I want to have control over what I do and how I do it.”

McGrath said proceeds from the book, available at the nonprofit’s online store at tellingroom.com/store, helps support its programs. The Young Writers and Leaders Program is free for students accepted into the program and provides them a monthly stipend.


Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that "A Season for Building Houses" is The Telling Room's first anthology. The organization has produced 10 previous anthologies.


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