Refugee Writers Means an Outlet for Refugees and Awareness for the Rest of Us

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Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Vickery Meadow
The other day, Unfair Park chatted with filmmaker Bentley Brown about his film Faisal Goes West, the tale of a Sudanese family moving to America and settling in Dallas' Vickery Meadow neighborhood. Brown mentioned his friend who convinced him to film in Dallas (and acted as script supervisor) started Refugee Writers, a project aimed at giving these people a platform -- any possible platform -- on which to tell their stories. We chatted with that friend, Justin Banta, to hear more about the stories he tells and why he tells them, or, as he puts it, why he "facilitates" telling them.

From November through February, Banta opened his home to a group of Sudanese refugees who felt that the conflict which forced them away from their home was not being thoroughly covered or thoroughly understood in America. At each meeting, the refugees would video-chat with their relatives who were still living in conflict zones and ask them for detailed reports of what was going on -- militia attacks, deaths, bombings, food shortages, and any other ongoing atrocities. While those in Banta's apartment ate scones and sipped coffee throughout the afternoon, their far-away relatives lived under vastly different circumstances of continued suffering and fear.

"It was really difficult," Banta told Unfair Park. "I think there was a time around December, January where I needed to take a break. ... It got pretty emotional and surreal sometimes." His weekly dispatches from those Saturday meet-up sessions are posted in a section devoted to the conflict on the Refugee Writers website.

Banta, who works in development for a nonprofit and organizes Refugee Writers on the side, started the organization in 2010 after attending Baylor University and graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary. The idea took hold after he met an Iraqi family and helped the father, who was disabled by a stroke, to tell his story. The man, Jamal Al Obaidi, had been a journalist kidnapped by militiamen because of an article he wrote. His family had to flee the country. The Dallas Morning News wrote about Banta and the family.

"All the projects and everything that we do are focused on engaging the immigrant and refugee populations in ways that respect their intelligence and background and recognizes that a large number of these people have professional degrees, sometimes doctorate degrees, and just generally a wealth of experience that is valuable to Dallas.

For July Fourth last year, Banta interviewed an Iraqi refugee who landed in Dallas after people in Iraq tried to kill him for serving as a translator for American soldiers. He transcribed and edited the interviews into a a striking op-ed for the Morning News.

Last year, Banta held writing workshops at Vickery Meadow Learning Center, where refugees met on Saturdays to write personal essays. The group, which included people from Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, Iraq and Russia, read what they'd written at an event at SMU's Embrey Human Rights Program. An essay from a Sudanese refugee who also participated in the video-chats to Sudan is posted below.

It's not easy to encapsulate what Refugee Writers does, as it tells stories through various media and platforms. "I'd say the overall goal is to really give expression to the immigrant and refugee experience in Dallas and to empower them to speak about their experiences on their own terms and in their own way. And to do that in whatever format works best for them," Banta says. In other words, the all-volunteer organization does whatever there's a need for it to do, and Banta hopes to continue doing more of it.

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