Silhouetted by a searing light, actress Kim Schultz transformed. Her fingers curved into shapes suggesting paralysis, her voice turned baritone and raspy. She performed the story of Tafer, a middle-aged Iraqi refugee poet. With arms pleading, head vaguely lifted, she recited, "there is no place for us in Iraq now -- no place called home."
Tafer's statement became the theme of Schultz's work and the title of her one-woman show about Iraqi refugees, No Place Called Home. The play was inspired by a three-week trip to the Middle East sponsored by Intersections International, a social justice organization headquartered in New York City. While the plight of Iraqi refugee families is the central theme of the play, a surprising love affair kicks off the show. In the opening scene Schultz staggers on stage with a starry gaze, "Omar was his name," she stuttered. "I wonder if he thinks I am a heathen, alcohol drinking, hair showing, Western slut?" Schultz's self-deprecating lines bring levity to the sobering dramatization of interviews with the refugees. "I thought sharing my story would give the audience a consistent character to connect with," Schultz said.
Musician and vocalist Amikaeyla Gaston, who also participated in the Intersections project, accompanied Schultz. Gaston wrote and composed the play's music. Gaston said she asked families to share songs from their homeland while interviewing them. "Sometimes they couldn't remember anything but the war, so I would sing to them and they would cry," Gaston said. She said singing would help them remember their lives were once beautiful. The play tows the line between autobiography and documentary theater. Schultz performs the stories of roughly 12 Iraqi refugees in just over an hour.
Fakher, a boxer turned artist that both Schultz and Gaston interviewed, told them he found a decapitated human head on his porch and was later kidnapped and tortured. One of his lines exemplifies the challenges Iraqi refugees face. "Last week, I find a long stick in our room. This is strange, so I go to my eldest son. He says, he planned to use it as defense against some of the meaner kids." Terrified of being deported, Fakher told his son not to defend himself.
Intersections International developed the Iraqi Voices Amplification Project (IVAP) to draw attention to the Iraqi refugee crisis. Last Fall they accompanied eight artists on a fact-finding mission to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Intersections hopes that art will inspire people to act. "The Iraqi refugee crisis is the most under-reported humanitarian crisis of this century," said Eduardo Vargas, project manager at Intersections International.
According to Intersections there are roughly four million refugees and internally displaced Iraqi civilians. Most Iraqi refugees fled to Jordan and Syria. Several countries in the region have not signed the 1951 refugee convention. Therefore most refugees are not legal and lack access to the most basic human rights. Advocacy organizations, like Intersections, argue the U.S. has a moral responsibility to help resettle Iraqi refugees. Specifically those who worked for the U.S. government following the 2003 U.S. lead invasion.
A policy goal of Intersections is advocating for the U.S. government to fulfill the mandate of the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program. The SIV program set a quota of resettling 5,000 once U.S. employed Iraqis per year between 2007 and 2011. Vargas said the United States has only issued 4,634 special visas since 2007. While this number does not reflect the total number of Iraqis resettled in the U.S., it is far below the mandate voted on by Congress. Intersections, and the artists it sponsored, are not alone in their advocacy efforts.
The List Project, an NGO that provides legal support and advocacy for Iraqis who worked with the United States, recently published a report urging the U.S. to take greater steps in fixing the special visa program. "These are the most documented refugees on the planet," said Kirk Johnson, executive director for The List Project. Johnson said the SIV program is under-funded and sundered by bureaucracy.
"I hope people will be inspired to do their part," Schultz said. The performance has a nomadic run in the New York area until the end of October. Schultz's goal is to perform the play around the country. At the end of the performance audience members are urged to participate in Intersections' Post Card to the President campaign. "The strategy is to send 2000 post cards to the president every week," Vargas said.
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