Every time Sherifa Nur thinks of the four children she left behind in war-torn Somalia, her blood sugar skyrockets and her stress-related diabetes sets in. So, aside from a brief monthly phone call, she tries to put them out of her mind.
Majida Albalhawi, who lost many members of her extended family along with her home and life savings during the war in Iraq, is struggling to reconstruct the life she left behind.
Abok Ngog, who was born into the Sudanese civil war and whose husband remains half a world away in South Sudan, finds it difficult to look straight into the eyes of her new countrymen.
The stories of these Buffalo women, and several more, were part of the inaugural presentation of "Unheard Voices: Giving Voice," a landmark collaboration between the Ujima Theatre Company and the Community Health Workers Network of Buffalo.
The goal of the project is simple: to give newly arrived refugees a chance to "make their own voices heard, to tell their own stories, and to articulate their own needs." It also serves the very important ancillary purpose of building a bridge between the greater community and Buffalo's refugee and immigrant population -- which stands at well over 10,000 and grows larger by the year.
The inaugural, three-day version of the program, which opened on the Ujima stage Friday night and has its final showing at 6 p.m. today, proves that the most powerful theatrical experiences can sometimes be the simplest.
During the two-hour program, a moderated conversation that happened to be in front of an audience, the women talked about their journeys to a strange new country, their struggles and successes and hopes for the future.
For most of us born in Western New York, it is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend the adversity many newly arrived refugees had to overcome to get here and the sense of alienation and frustration many face on arrival. "Unheard Voices" provides some small glimpse into the lives of a population that faces the same challenges generations of Irish, German, Polish and Italian immigrants faced generations ago.
"I think it's something that we know, we have all these different refugee cultures, but we don't know a lot about them, we don't know a lot about their ways, their cultures," said Nadia Pizarro of the American Red Cross, who moderated the program. "To have refugee women come onstage for this purpose of providing information for providers and the services they need, to be doing something this groundbreaking and to be serving the community, it's just really exciting."
It also points to a huge opportunity for new theatrical work in a city with so many unique stories to tell.
Tony Kushner's play "Angels in America" opens with a speech by a rabbi to memorialize the grandmother of one of the main characters. In that speech, the rabbi characterizes America as "a strange place," "a melting pot where nothing melted" and goes on to say that great voyages like those undertaken by generations of Jewish families in the 19th and early 20th centuries no longer exist. But those great journeys of the past do exist today in our own diversifying city. As new generations of immigrants continue to find their way into the open arms of Western New York, the melting pot (in the most positive sense of that term) is very much in action.
The stories these men and women have carried on their backs and into the City of Buffalo are deeply compelling and vital to an understanding of the city today. We can only hope that more of them make their way onto the stage.