Calvin prof previews theater documentary on refugees in West Michigan


Photo courtesy Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence.

Every year, West Michigan welcomes approximately 600 refugees from places such as Congo, Burma and Bhutan.  These refugees are only a fraction of the 45 million displaced people in the world, forced to leave their homes due to racial, religious, nation or political persecution.

Stephanie Sandberg, professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, along with a communications class last fall semester, gathered the stories of 112 local refugees.  Seven of them have become “Grains of Hope,” a documentary theater piece.

The goal of this documentary theatre is “to take some sort of societal issue, problem, or challenge, turn it into a piece of research, then generate a script,” Sandberg said.

The refugee experience begins with individuals fleeing their homelands.  They settle in camps in bordering countries where they endure what Sandberg calls “the trauma of boredom.”  Not allowed to work and unable to move, refugees must wait to either return home or be permanently resettled.

Once relocated, finding jobs and learning English quickly become the biggest challenges.  Many refugees start working 40 hours a week of hard labor after not working for 20 years.  Once they have jobs, they are too tired to focus on learning English. “It’s difficult and people get depressed,” Sandberg said.

Some of the refugees’ stories are dark, others are hopeful.  The title of the play comes from the story of a Sudanese man who was taken by the People’s Liberation Army, brainwashed, and tortured.   He remembers that “even though we didn’t know that was possible, we still had this grain of hope.”

Telling their stories has been powerful for many of the participants.  “Narratives happen in these little fractured pieces and it takes a while to build up into story.  But when they can piece it together and see that there’s a purpose and meaning to all of the suffering that happened, there is a huge empowerment.”

Sandberg has developed a friendship with the Iraqi woman whose story is in the play.  She spends each week teaching her citizenship material.  Ultimately, she says this is what resettlement should be about:  building relationships.  They’re “what sustain people more than anything,” she said.  “Service-learning is not just about the work, but it’s also about the relationships you build in the community.”