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Here’s How A Puppet Show Is Dispelling Misperceptions About Refugees

Every year, hundreds of refugees end up calling St. Louis home after going through the resettlement process in the United States. And despite coming from different countries, their experiences with moving to a new country as refugees are in many ways similar — including the screening process, cultural orientation, navigating the health care system and learning English.

The Refugee Integration Project, funded by a University of Missouri Research Board award, spent 12 months documenting these sorts of critical shifts and moments. And now, the stories emerging from that research will be presented in a new puppet show called, “We Came As Refugees: An American Story.” It’s an effort to help increase awareness about refugees and challenges they face in the United States.

Why puppets? “I feel that we can say things through puppetry that we can’t really say as people, or it won’t be as accepted if it’s said by a person versus a puppet,” the project’s coordinator, Felia Davenport, explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Organized by the School of Social Work and the Department of Communication & Media Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where Davenport is an associate professor, the research-based production itself was spearheaded by Daniel Romano in collaboration with the St. Louis Storytelling Festival and the University of Missouri Extension.

Romano, a storyteller and puppeteer, based his writing and direction of the project on the real-life experiences of interviewees. Researcher Ramona Marshall was one of the people who conducted those interviews. Marshall and a fellow UMSL alumna connected with refugees as well as other stakeholders within the local immigrant and refugee community — about 35 interviews all told.

“Not only did we interview refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we also interviewed ELL teachers, physicians, caseworkers, employers and then neighbors of refugees … that’s how we wanted to sort of get the 360-degree perspective,” Marshall told host Sarah Fenske.

Once Romano had all of those recorded and transcribed interviews in hand, he took that and incorporated it into the script for “We Came As Refugees: An American Story.”

Davenport and others met with Romano to help identify shared themes.

“I think it was five different revisions, so as he wrote each script, he would send it out to all of us to read and get our feedback and what we felt worked or didn’t work or if we felt something was missing,” Davenport said.

Ultimately, the characters in the play became composites, but in an “individualized” way, as Romano put it.

“The story focuses on one [Syrian] family, but as they interact with other characters, we hear other stories too,” he said.

Organizers of the puppet show said it’s important that those who register to attend this week’s livestreamed production take the time to fill out a pre- and post-show survey. They’re hoping to gauge the efficacy of the puppet show as an educational tool.

Related Event

What: “We Came As Refugees: An American Story

When: 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, and 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14

Where: Zoom

(The event is free, but registration is required.)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Evie Hemphill joined the St. Louis on the Air team in February 2018. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005, she started her career as a reporter for the Westminster Window in Colorado. Several years later she went on to pursue graduate work in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and moved to St. Louis upon earning an MFA in the spring of 2010. She worked as writer and editor for Washington University Libraries until 2014 and then spent several more years in public relations for the University of Missouri–St. Louis before making the shift to St. Louis Public Radio.