We had a meeting and some general considerations for traveling in the Middle East, but that’s about it. I literally googled “IRAQI REFUGEE CRISIS” before going because I didn’t know anything about it. The media never really gave any proper coverage to a displacement of over 4 million people. This is especially sad due to the fact that the displacement was in a large part due to our invasion of the country.
Ironically, I thought I would go over there, interview the folks, write my commissioned play and then go on with my life as planned, never expecting it to be changed as dramatically as it was.
Ha, yes. I was so innocent in Beirut (our first stop). Shocked even. By the time we were in Damascus, I was wrecked, emotionally and physically and certainly suffering from some secondhand trauma. I was also less phased by each story. It was harder to shock and horrify me after a month of being shocked and horrified.
Beirut was lovely, one of my favorite cities in the world. I was surprised by all the refugee neighborhoods. Many refugees live in poor, rundown neighborhoods that have become “refugee” neighborhoods. Beirut also has its own war-torn past, of course. So it was interesting to see and hear the history of all that—to see the actual bullet holes in buildings we walked by.
Damascus was exquisite. Breaks my heart to hear of it destroyed by the civil war. It was ancient, mystical and breathtaking. Of course, I fell in love there, so that doesn’t hurt… My heart aches for the Syrian people. Visiting the famous Umayyad Mosque and the ancient ruins of Bosra was so enchanting. The recent destruction of Bosra by ISIS was so devastating. History lost.
I started the play No Place Called Home immediately upon my return from the Middle East in 2009. I then performed and toured that play for 3 years. Around 2012-13, I decided I needed to write the book. And I’ve been working on it more or less ever since.
I kept very specific journals and diaries during the trip. Also, all our interviews, save one or 2, were recorded. So I referred to all of that in the writing of both the play and book. The journals were priceless as a reference tool of course. It was interesting to track my emotional life in that trip too via the journals. I was a wreck!
I also did a lot of research on refugees and how we treat them worldwide since my return. I have spoken to many organizations and people in my journey to become an advocate for refugees, Iraqi and otherwise.
It was incredibly difficult. I cried every day. As I mention in the book, I felt guilty about that, as they weren’t my stories. I didn’t feel I had a right to cry so much. I was only hearing the stories. I didn’t live them. These people I met lived these horrific tales every day.
Also, I became acutely aware of aid workers, translators and other care providers. I don’t know how they do it every day. They must develop a thicker skin than I had. I give them so much credit for the work they do in the field every day. Not easy.
When you met Omar, an Iraqi refugee living “illegally” in Damascus, you were only three days away from leaving the Middle East to return to New York City. Here is a passage from 3 Days in Damascus, when you visited Omar’s apartment to see his art, the night after you met him:
Nonetheless we dance our second ceremonial dance a few
moments longer—a few more luscious, lingering moments. Omar
leads. I decide to quit seeking an answer (ask again later) and I
instead follow, allowing myself to be suspended in the time warp
in which I find myself—the mystical, magical, sensual suspensions
of time, in an old-world country with my old-world Omar.
Did you write this passage before you left Damascus, or later?
After I left.
I did write some small tidbits while I was there. I was quite inspired, but the bulk of all my writing was done upon my return.
Challenging. We had so many difficulties as I tried to convey in the book. Internet in Syria was often crap. Video wouldn’t work, audio wouldn’t work. You name it. Phone calling was expensive, so I did most of the calling. Except for one month, Omar never had Internet at home, so that meant travelling to an Internet café, which got more dangerous as the violence broke out. It also meant some risk by more conservative folks seeing he was texting an American woman on a public computer. And there was the time change and the language challenges and, and, and…. So many challenges! As I write in the book, I longed for a relationship with a man in my own country!
No Place Called Home is indeed a one-woman show with music. It was performed off Broadway, as well as a national tour including a stop at The Kennedy Center, in Washington D.C. The music part is so important to the play, integral really. The musician acts as a call and response, a sounding board. She even forces me to tell stories I don’t want to tell. And the music gives us all a break from the words—something very important for the audience and even myself as the performer. It also communicates story and emotion, just in a different way.
The play starts similarly to the book—with the love story. I have always believed the love story makes the rest of the story more palatable. The love story sucks you into the story you need to hear, that of the refugees.
The main difference between the play and book is that the book covers an additional 3 years.
How to begin! I am just a different person than I was pre-trip. In every way, both the trip and the love thing changed me. I now advocate and work with refugees. I never did that before. I have written essays and stories and articles advocating and speaking for refugees. I am also different on a personal level. I don’t think anyone can hear the stories I heard and not be changed, which is why I wrote a book and a play. I want the audience, my reader to also be changed experiencing my stories. I want them to be moved. I want them to be affected. I want them to see the refugees as humans, not as terrorists or “others” but as us, people just like us. If I can change a heart and their subsequent thought and actions through my book, then I am happy.
I do a lot independently and work with others when I can. I basically just do anything I can do to help sell some art. It makes a big difference for the individual artists. I have probably sold close to a hundred paintings for my Iraqi artist friends. I curated a solo show for Omar in NYC and got several of their paintings in some group shows, including a great small organization out of NYC called Common Humanity which does amazing grassroots work involving selling Iraqi and Syrian refugee artists’ work. The website is a little outdated but some information can be found at iraqirefugeeart.weebly.com or by contacting me through my websites. I am about to sell a new lot of beautiful paintings by Omar himself. I’ll be putting them on Facebook.
I actually don’t help resettle refugees. Large national organizations do that. But I volunteer with resettlement orgs to help individuals get acclimated to their new home, helping with language skills, transportation, culture etc. They are always in need of more volunteers! If you would rather give time than money, this is a great way to make a difference in the life of a refugee.
I have published these articles:
With 2 Million Iraqi Refugees and 100,000 Civilian Deaths, the Iraq War is Far From Over
Iraqi Refugees in Syria Face a Difficult Choice
Trump’s Vision of Muslims is Wrong and Dangerous
The Struggle for Iraqi Artists
Otherwise following refugee organizations on Facebook and Twitter will provide a wealth of information.
I recommend to people, if they feel inclined, to donate money or time to organizations doing work in the field:
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Rescue Committee, Refugees International, plus some smaller organizations doing good work.
Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project
Collateral Repair Project
The Education for Peace in Iraq Center
Thanks so much Ronne! Hope you enjoy the book. And thanks Sandra!
Awesome interview. Thanks for this, Sandra. People have such amazing experiences in the world. It’s so great when someone takes the time and effort to convert their incredible experiences into a story that can be accessed by the rest of us. And what a timely topic, Kim Schultz. This book is on my reading list.
Jerry Waxler (author of Memoir Revolution )
Thank you for your comment! I think you will find Kim’s book quite insightful. Her story took her to a new place of awareness and challenged her to make sense of her experiences in Syria. In your own work with memoir writing, you must witness the universality of the human condition and the need for people to make sense of their lives.
Hi Kim, I really enjoyed reading your interview. Wow. I’m impressed and humbled by your experiences and the depth of your commitment and artistry too; it was fascinating and painful all at once to read. I can only imagine what it felt like to put it down in writing! I look forward to reading the memoir, and congratulate you on writing it.