Nineteen refugee youths from Central New York recently wrapped up a four-week intensive storytelling and leadership workshop on the University campus and at the North Side Learning Center in the city of Syracuse. It marked a milestone for the Narratio Fellowship, as it was the program’s largest class to date.
Launched in 2019 by Brice Nordquist, associate professor of writing studies, rhetoric and composition and Dean’s Professor of Community Engagement in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), and Iraqi-American author, poet and social entrepreneur Ahmed Badr, the Narratio Fellowship provides Syracuse-area refugee youth with opportunities to explore and represent a full range of their own histories and experiences through artistic expression. By sharing their stories in a way that is authentic and meaningful to them, fellows are able to show the world that they are not solely defined by their experience of being displaced.
While in previous years the fellows each explored one specific medium of storytelling (poetry in 2019 and film-making in 2020), this year’s program was expanded, allowing each fellow to study either poetry or photography.
“We were thrilled to increase our class size and offer more programming options,” says Nordquist. “This year we were able to welcome fellows from more schools, more community centers and different neighborhoods across the region. It’s the most regionally diverse group of fellows we have ever had.”
The larger cohort is a welcome sight for organizers after COVID-19 safety protocols forced them to trim last year’s group to six from the inaugural class, which was composed of 11 fellows. The 2021 cohort, selected through an application process, includes fellows from Henninger, Nottingham, West Genesee and PSLA at Fowler high schools;Ihsan School of Excellence; Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University.
Nordquist says a key to expanding the program was their partnership with National Geographic, which provided the fellowship with funding and connected Narratio with Vision Workshops, an organization that partners with National Geographic to provide educational experiences for young people around the world, with a focus on photography and self-expression.
For this summer’s program, fellows in the photography cohort worked with artist-in-residence Stefano Castro, who is a Colombian-American photographer, and National Geographic photographers Matt Moyer and Newhouse professor Amy Toensing, who were both brought in through Vision Workshops.
Fellows in the poetry cohort worked with Khadija Mohamed, a 2019 Narratio Fellow and rising junior in A&S, who guided the group through a storytelling-through-poetry project.
The fellowship will culminate with a trip to New York City later this fall made possible thanks to an ongoing collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It will mark the fellowship’s first visit back to New York since 2019, when the inaugural class performed a poetry reading at the Met’s Ancient Near East gallery. Last year all events were virtual due to the pandemic.
In addition to presenting their poems and photography, the fellows have been working closely with conservationists and curators at the Met. During their visit to the Met, they will spend time in laboratories learning how to repair, conserve and reconstruct objects. Nordquist says this blending of science and engineering with humanities caters to many of the cohort with dual interests in STEM and the arts.
This spring the fellows will also exhibit and perform their work at an event in connection with the Syracuse University Humanities Center’s Syracuse Symposium.
The success of the Narratio Fellowship has caught the attention of organizations that support resettled refugees in other cities including Richmond, Virginia and Houston, Texas. Later this year Nordquist, Badr and a group of Narratio fellows will travel to Virginia to meet with a group called Re-Establish Richmond, which connects refugees and new immigrants to the resources needed to establish roots and build community. The Narratio team will host youth workshops and explore the possibility of starting a Richmond cohort.
While Nordquist is excited about the prospect of expanding nationally, he says growing the program locally to involve more refugee youth in Central New York is still a primary goal for the fellowship.
“We want to continue to build this network and a structure in Syracuse where we’re getting more organizations sharing projects and resources and more students across the city feeling like they have this shared identity in the midst of their unique complexities,” he says. “Investing in local students is the way to strengthen our community.”