Young American immigrants on stage...Fatu, Dareen, Abdul shout their painful secrets
- Sunday, February 2, 2003
Out of the Mouth of Babes
Five young immigrants shout their painful secrets to the world. Talk about a
By Douglas McGray
Fatu Sankoh doesn't talk about the past. She has learned to change the
subject, or say nothing at all. Fatu is 15 years old, and something of a
miracle for a girl from Sierra Leone. She giggles sweetly with her
girlfriends at Annandale High School, and talks about pop stars (Usher,
Ashanti, J. Lo) and boys (only educated and respectful ones should come
calling) in the musical cadence of a country thousands of miles away. She
could also talk about rebel gangs mad on cocaine, about amputations, about
hiding under a bed next to the bleeding body of a classmate, while gunfire
crackled and popped outside. But when it comes to the past, she has learned
to keep her mouth shut.
When Dereen Pasha speaks, it is barely louder than a whisper, and solemn,
even if he is talking about his favorite cartoons -- the Simpsons,
SpongeBob, Tom and Jerry. But listen, and he may talk about the home he left
for Centreville, Va. He is from Kurdistan, he says. Because to say he grew
up in the Kurdish region of Iraq means explaining he hates Saddam Hussein.
Which means explaining how his family and friends were gassed, executed,
driven to starvation hiding from Hussein's troops in the mountains. Which
probably means explaining how his father died, shot in front of him by Iraqi
assassins. Which is too much for a 15-year-old boy to explain over and over
again, even one as patient and as solemn as Dereen.
Tonight, though, they won't shrink from ugly memories. They will be loud.
They have been practicing for weeks, Dereen raising his voice until it
echoes at the back of the deep theater, and Fatu, aware of her strong
accent, closing her mouth deliberately around each word: "home" (watch that
H) ..."war" (don't forget the R) ..."afraid."
Dereen and Fatu wait just offstage at George Mason University's Theater of
the First Amendment with three other teenagers: Yarvin Cuchilla, from El
Salvador and Fairfax; Abdul Hakeem Paigir, from Afghanistan and Alexandria;
and Awa Nur, from Somalia and Herndon. Playwright and director Ping Chong
gathers them close.
"So this is your first big audience tonight, your first real audience," he
says, with a reassuring grin. "Are you scared?"
"A little," Fatu says with a look that says, "A lot." Awa nods. Abdul grins
"What did I tell you to do if you're nervous?" Chong asks.
Everyone takes a deep breath.
For 10 days in December, these five local teenagers starred in an arresting
documentary theater production called "Children of War." The precarious
lives they dramatized onstage were their own: five ghostwritten
autobiographies, woven together, and then read by their real-life subjects.
The show's principal backer was not some deep-pocketed producer, or an arts
foundation, but the Center for Multicultural Human Services, a nationally
known nonprofit in Falls Church that assists Northern Virginia's vast
immigrant and refugee community.
The project grew out of a work Chong staged a few years ago at Washington's
GALA Hispanic Theatre, one in a series called "Undesirable Elements." The
series, which has been produced in different locations around the country
and abroad, is oral history as theater. It tells the story of a group of
"outsiders," frequently immigrants, who live in the area where the show is
staged and who perform the roles themselves. The show's goals are openly
social as well as artistic, aiming to teach a community about itself by
shining light on the disparate cultures and experiences of the people who
make it up.
Staffers from the Center for Multicultural Human Services, in the audience
at GALA, were impressed. In the fall of 2001, the center's director, Dennis
Hunt, broached with Chong the idea of commissioning a new play, like
"Undesirable Elements" but with a focus on local kids and the psychological
damage they have suffered as a result of war.
"Kids don't want to just sit in a room and talk," Hunt explains. "We
wondered, could we use some kind of drama technique as therapy?" That notion
was hardly revolutionary; New York University, a pioneer in the field, has
given specialized degrees in drama therapy since 1984. But what Hunt
proposed was something more ambitious: While the "Children of War" project
might sound a lot like drama therapy (and like a newer technique called
testimony therapy, which has generated interest among clinicians since the
late 1990s), the center believed that "Children of War" could also attract a
paying audience on its artistic merits -- and in doing so, educate
Washington audiences about the difficult lives of the refugees in their
midst. As it turned out, the balance between art and healing was neither
easy nor obvious.
On a sunny morning in July, Kacie Fisher, a clinical social worker at the
Center for Multicultural Human Services, and Andrea Zalzal Sanderson, a
counselor, walked into a small room just past the center's reception area,
where a polyglot crowd of local residents lingered, chattering quietly in
this and that. Fisher and Zalzal Sanderson closed the door. A tall stack of
binders, fat with paperwork, had taken over the desk. In a corner sat a
dream of a dollhouse, a Victorian mansion in pink and white.
Fisher is tall and athletic-looking, a bit Californian -- though she was
born in India and grew up in Indonesia. Zalzal Sanderson has kind brown eyes
and an easy manner. Together they were responsible for finding Chong's
performers: young people traumatized enough to serve the project's
educational mission and reap some therapeutic benefit, yet psychologically
sturdy enough to confess to horrifying personal histories in front of
hundreds of strangers.
Both of them had doubts about the assignment. "I reacted a lot like the
children that we've approached," said Fisher. "It sounds great, and I love
the idea of increasing awareness and sensitivity to cultural difference. But
then I get very nervous about people revealing stories. Once you open that
door, especially if you have not had prior treatment, you don't really know
what's going to come up for you." As public education, they agreed, the
project was inspired. As therapy, it was tricky.
The center had eliminated the most obvious pool of candidates for the
project -- its own clients. In order to recommend kids who had received
counseling there, Zalzal Sanderson and Fisher would have had to reveal
information shared in confidence. Liability issues spooked the center's
lawyers. And kids, particularly victims of trauma, are usually overeager to
please their therapists, raising the possibility that they would volunteer
for the wrong reasons. "We have to be really careful, as authority figures,
or as experts, or as older people, or as clinicians who presumably have some
power over children, to not look like we're taking advantage of that,"
Zalzal Sanderson said.
So she, Fisher and Nadia Shek, an intern from the College of William and
Mary, called and e-mailed middle schools and high schools across Fairfax
County and the District to come up with a list of candidates. "The number
one reason people turned out not to be a good fit was that parents feared
getting in trouble with immigration services," Fisher said. "You can go to
school here legally and not be a legal resident or have legal immigration
If the parents were legal, and the kids were interested, they met Zalzal
Sanderson and Fisher at the office. "First we usually sat with the parent
alone and asked if they had any concerns," Fisher said. "Then we met with
the children individually. We videotaped them and interviewed them. And they
wrote a brief summary of their life experiences."
"I've had a couple of these interviews where I've thought, It's amazing that
you're sitting here," she said quietly, "because you should probably be
By the end of June, they had screened about 80 kids.
They looked for cues that the teenagers might buckle under the psychic
strain of performing. Zalzal Sanderson ticked off the signs of trouble:
"flashbacks, or feeling numb, or feeling disconnected, or having this
feeling of disreality, or having severe nightmares, or having real
functional impairments." In cases where kids seemed too troubled for the
project, they were referred to therapists. "We don't just interview them and
say, No, you're not right, wouldn't be a good fit, see you later!" she said.
Throughout, they tried not to sugarcoat the project. "We'll ask them very
directly, You're going to be up in front of a lot of people having to talk
about some very painful things," Fisher explained.
"Can you imagine the lights being on you, and it being so dark that you
can't see the hundreds of people who might be there? How does that feel?"
Ping Chong follows his grin into a room. His smile is bright and familiar,
just right for the kids he is about to meet for the first time. His gray
hair is shaved close; he is wearing a lime-green knit shirt, bunched above
his tan forearms.
Chong extends his hand to Ibrahim Sankoh and then to his daughter Fatu.
Fatu's head is tipped shyly. She is wearing dark jeans with red stitches, a
bright red shirt ruffled around the neck, and slinky red patent leather
Fatu's father talks first, and spends nearly an hour telling Chong about his
decision to leave Sierra Leone for Virginia in 1991, without Fatu; about
deadly factionalism; about his first glimpses of skyscrapers and frozen
food. Then it is Fatu's turn, as her father waits outside.
Fatu's face is still, but her hands give her away: They fuss nervously with
a small change purse, turning it over and over in her lap.
Chong begins every interview the same way, at birth. Fatu tells him where
she was born (Freetown), when (June 20, 1987), how she came to possess her
name (it was her grandmother's), and what the world outside was like when
she came into it (rainy). Like all the kids Chong interviews, she starts
slowly and vaguely. But by the time she gets to her grade school years, she
is a teenage girl talking at top speed.
"Slow down, slow down!" He waves his arms like he's stopping traffic, and
grins. She smiles back sheepishly.
Chong's questions come in narrow, and narrower. "What did you eat at
school?" he asks. "Beans and bread," she answers. "What kind of beans?" he
presses. She looks at the ceiling, searching for the word, and then gives
up: "The brown one that has the dot in the center."
"Generalities are useless to me, I need the specifics," he explains later.
"I need to get the picture." After hours of interviews with each of the
teenagers, he will condense and rewrite their stories into a script. The
details are what will allow him to put words back in the mouths of his
"actors" and have them ring true.
When Fatu explains how she and her relatives fled a rebel assault on
Freetown, for instance, Chong asks unflinchingly, "Did you see a lot of dead
bodies on your way?" There were so many, she says, that she had to jump over
them. Once, she stumbled, and her foot was buried in a rotting body; when
she pulled her foot out, she says, her shoe got stuck, and she had to leave
Chong's project manager, Sara Zatz, transcribes most of the conversation,
longhand. After more than two hours, her face is drawn, her eyes red.
"That's enough for today," Chong says. Fatu smiles.
"How do you feel?" asks Zalzal Sanderson, who is observing the interview.
"Relieved," Fatu answers. It's just the answer the counselors were hoping
for. With her dramatic story and calm demeanor, she's in the show before
she's out the door.
Abdul Hakeem Paigir is 14, an eighth-grader at Holmes Middle School in
Alexandria. Skinny and moon-eyed, in jeans, a T-shirt with a graffiti-style
cartoon and a Georgetown hat, he could pass for younger than that. He smiles
disarmingly as he leads his mother through the door. Everybody smiles back.
It's impossible not to smile back at Abdul. "He's such a cute kid," Fisher
says. And he is a natural class clown, ready with non sequiturs about the
time his confused little brother tried to order a pizza by dialing 911, or
the flight attendant he wanted to marry on his flight to America ("the
whitest woman I had seen"). He says he wants to be a fighter pilot when he
In 1993 Abdul's family fled the tribal wars of Afghanistan for the refugee
camps of Pakistan, where they lived, ostracized, for the next eight years.
They finally received their visas to come to America on September 10, 2001.
One day's delay at the U.S. consulate, Abdul's mother explains through an
interpreter, and they would probably still be refugees in Pakistan.
"I will never forget when Abdul came in for the first time," Fisher says
later. "They'd only been in this country for seven months. Abdul had a
U.S.A. flag T-shirt on, and his dad wore a U.S. Capitol shirt. Some of these
families are trying so hard to acculturate."
For Abdul, that effort has translated into an unmatchable enthusiasm for
school. "He's struggled at school, both academically and with learning the
language, and he's had conflict with other students who have singled him
out, picked on him," Fisher says. And yet: "This child, he told me, 'I don't
like Saturday and Sunday because I don't get to go to school.' " He tries to
sleep as late as possible, he tells Chong, so that Mondays will come sooner.
Abdul says he made friends quickly in his new surroundings. "Did your new
friends have questions about your country?" Chong asks.
"What did you talk about, then?"
"Jackie Chan." Chong cracks up.
"What about music?" he asks.
Chong looks skeptical. "What did your friends think about that?" he asks.
"They think he looks like a girl." Chong laughs again.
"What are some new things you've learned to eat?" he asks. He asks a lot of
questions about food, one of the simplest but most profound examples of
"Pizza," Abdul says, and then thinks a moment. "Pork." His mother's head
whips around, and she stares at her Muslim son. Abdul smiles weakly. He has
confessed too much.
"Children of War" would premiere 10 years after Chong wrote and staged
"Undesirable Elements" for the first time. "I understood, by seeing the
reaction of audiences over the years, the power of simply telling," he says.
"I have had more standing ovations for [the 'Undesirable Elements' series]
over the years than for anything else."
Chong is a well-known figure in the New York avant-garde art scene. He got
his start there in the early 1970s, when multimedia artist Meredith Monk
invited him to join her company. Since then he has produced a series of
installations, video art and more than 50 works for the stage, including a
quartet of historical pieces in the '90s that explored tensions between East
and West -- "Deshima," "Chinoiserie," "After Sorrow" and "Pojagi." The
Kennedy Center will stage "Obon," one of his puppet theater pieces inspired
by Japanese ghost stories, this summer. That body of work has earned him two
prestigious Obie Awards, including one, in 2000, for sustained achievement.
"The thing that I find so amazing about him is my inability to categorize
him," says Susie Farr, executive director of the University of Maryland's
Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, where Chong is spending the
spring semester as an artist in residence. "He never creates works that you
can sit back and let wash over you," she says. "They touch tender and risky
places in people's hearts. But he does it with such care that it makes the
audience a part of it, as opposed to putting up barriers against it."
Most of this work, Chong says, shares a common theme with "Undesirable
Elements": otherness. "My entire career has been built around it," he says.
Not surprising, perhaps, for a child of immigrants, who recalls the
Chinatown of his youth as a discrete world within New York.
In "Undesirable Elements," the performers, always nonprofessionals, greet
the audience in their own languages. Then they launch into a history lesson.
They call out dates chronologically -- 1867! 1921! -- skipping from country
to country to emphasize a shared world history. Gradually, that becomes a
history of grandparents, of mothers and fathers, and finally, of their own
lives. 1987! 1991! Their individual stories become one shared story. They
take turns remembering a moment aloud, while the rest of the cast, in a kind
of call and response, act out the roles of their parents, their friends or
"It's a testimonial, but also a ritual," Chong explains. "All the
participants learn something about each other. It's a communal ritual of
connection." And, he believes, a way to do good through art. "It is
frustrating sometimes to make art and feel like it is superficial. I'm not a
politician, I'm not a social activist," he says. "As an artist, I want to
feel like I'm doing something socially useful."
By the end of October, Chong has settled on his performers and finished the
first draft of a script. This is how it works: First, he studied the notes
from hours of interviews with his cast members. Then, mostly paraphrasing,
but occasionally weaving in quotes or near-quotes, he wrote a monologue for
each one. Finally, he chopped up everyone's lines and put them in order so
the narrative would proceed chronologically.
It has been a bit of a challenge writing for a cast of all kids for the
first time. "Adults have more access to their memory," Chong explains. (When
Abdul told Chong his family's apartment building in Kabul, which was bombed,
had been about 50 stories tall, his mother corrected him through her
translator; it was actually eight.) And Chong is worried about audiences
understanding Fatu's and Abdul's accents when they read their lines. He has
written Abdul's lines in simpler English than the rest of the script, and he
will probably have to rewrite a few of them if his youngest performer has
Chong has picked the five kids for the show: Fatu, Abdul, Dereen, Yarvin --
a senior at Mountain View High School, an alternative school in Centreville,
and the mother of a little girl -- and Awa, a sophomore at Herndon High
School. There have been only a few tough calls. Yarvin's history is less one
of war than of abuse and neglect. But she is a remarkable young woman, and
her trauma is not so unlike that of the other teenagers, so Chong decided to
expand "Children of War" to include "war in the home." Another teen, raised
amid guns and hard drugs in the roughest corners of Washington, was passed
over because he still lives too traumatic a life, Chong felt, to mesh with
the tenor of "Children of War," which focuses on resolving traumas in the
Probably the most difficult decision involved adding a sixth, adult
performer, Farinaz Amirsehi, a counselor at the Center for Multicultural
Human Services, and an immigrant from Iran with her own harrowing history.
Including Amirsehi solved a problem that had been troubling Chong -- how to
put the stories of his five teen performers in the larger context of the
center's work with war-traumatized children.
On the first day of rehearsal, a warm Sunday afternoon in November, Amirsehi
is the first to arrive at the center. She has short brown hair swept away
from her face, dark eyes and, today, an anxious expression.
"Ready?" Chong asks, beaming, as he walks in. The large room is lined with
drawings in bright crayon that, taped together, show a fantastic bridge from
Africa to the United States.
"Yeah," Amirsehi says. "Getting nervous. Do you usually work with amateurs?"
"I work with real people," he says forcefully. "Not amateurs. There are no
amateurs in this show."
Gradually the kids arrive. Each one comes in quietly and sits down. Abdul
next to Dereen; they shake hands. Awa, pretty and lithe, next to Fatu. Chong
shuffles through copies of the script, noting late changes for his stage
manager, Courtney Golden. Yarvin, at 18 the oldest, is the last one to
arrive. Red-faced and flustered, she takes a seat in the corner, a bit
removed from the others.
Chong leads them over to a table where he has spread out a series of maps.
"This is Abdul's country, Afghanistan," he says. "And this is Sulaymaniyah,
Dereen's city. Dereen, do you call it Kurdistan?"
"Yes," he answers quietly.
El Salvador. Somalia. Iran. The kids absorb the geography lesson in silence,
and then return to the table. "If there are any words in there you don't
understand, raise your hand," he says, as they flip through the first pages
of their new life story.
Yarvin begins, reading from the top. "Let's get started. Please sit." ("Say
the next part in Spanish," Chong interrupts.)"Mi nombre es Yarvin Cuchilla.
Yo naci en el llano Los Patos departamento de la union El Salvador."
At first, the kids struggle with timing -- dates called in unison, 10 claps
in a row. "If you listen to each other, you'll be at the same rhythm," Chong
insists. "This whole show, it's very important that you listen to each
Listen they do, particularly once the script moves from national histories
to personal dramas.
"These are the people who made my life miserable," says Yarvin, choking on
the line. As the kids around the table call out the list of names from her
past -- "Abuela Tina. Maria. Christina. Pedro. Manuel" -- Yarvin fights back
tears. She can barely finish the next sentence: "These are the people who
sustained me with their kindness." The kids call out: "Martin. Francisco.
Santos. Emma. Lidia. Jose. Ellen." Yarvin's head dips, and she sobs quietly,
her tiny body shaking from the effort not to make a scene.
Yarvin struggles with many of her lines; in fact, her history seems to
affect the kids at least as profoundly as their own traumatic tales. When
Yarvin, her eyes swollen now and her voice halting, says that her mother
sold her to a friend for sex when she was only 14, in a motel room in Ocean
City, Awa and Fatu shrink in their chairs. Awa's long black hair drops a
curtain around her face. When Yarvin reads, in a broken voice, a line taken
nearly verbatim from her interview -- that her daughter, now 2, "will never
have to suffer as I have, and I will never deny her ... a mother's ...
love" -- the weight of the room is almost too much to bear.
"I was afraid," Fatu tells me later, as she gathers her things to leave. "I
thought mine would be worst. But I never cried when I told mine. When I
heard that girl's ..." Her voice trails off. "Yarvin," Awa says. They are
It is hard to imagine a month of this, much less a public performance. But
Chong has been doing this kind of production for a decade. "Speaking is a
healing act, putting it all out there," he says. It will get easier.
Three hours a day, five days a week. Chong's rehearsals begin to look and
sound less like therapy, and more like practice. Fatu's performance
transforms quickly. Early on, Chong worries that audiences won't understand
her. "Her reading, speaking, is going to take some work," he says. "We'll
have to adjust her lines as we go along."
Now he has coaxed Fatu into reading her lines more deliberately, and has
discovered a lovely, powerful voice. "At first, when we needed to assign a
line to someone, it was, Give it to Farinaz, give it to Yarvin," stage
manager Golden recalls. Now, Chong is adding to Fatu's part. When her voice
is clear, her charisma is magnetic.
Dereen poses a different directorial challenge. "We had to get him to be a
little more expressive," Golden explains. He tends to read his lines in a
quiet mono-tone, eyes fixed on the page.
"How does that make you feel?" Chong interrupts at one point, as Dereen
describes with a detached air how Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi troops to
slaughter the Kurds in Sulaymaniyah.
"Not happy?" Dereen says.
"Then make it sound not happy," Chong urges.
The next time is a little better.
The most enduring obstacle turns out to be simple logistics. None of the
kids can get to rehearsal by bus or Metro, so volunteers from the center
drive them to and from their homes, more than 200 rides in five weeks.
Rehearsals start late -- and run late -- when volunteer drivers get stuck in
Northern Virginia traffic (Chong can't really rehearse "Children of War"
without a full cast). And sometimes, the life of a Washington-area teenager
is too unpredictable for even careful plans. "At the fourth rehearsal, Abdul
could not be found," Fisher recalls. "He wasn't at home when our driver went
to pick him up." An hour later, a police cruiser pulled up, and out stepped
Abdul. He had witnessed a stabbing at the school bus stop, and had had to go
to court the same day because of it.
But two weeks pass, and a show begins to take shape. Chong and his kids move
from the center to the theater, empty for the time being except for a
clutter of folding chairs. Chong nitpicks about pronunciation, and timing.
He scolds the teenagers playfully, then impatiently, when they miss their
cues to speak. ("Stop stop stop!") The kids are no longer the fragile,
solemn bunch from two Sundays ago, avoiding eye contact and holding back
tears. They are gossiping, clowning around. "They're all palsy-walsy now,"
Chong says wryly, as he struggles to move through the script on schedule.
"We haven't just read the play and gone home," Awa explains. "We talk.
Sometimes we even ride home with each other. [Our] high schools are very
similar. We've become friends through our circumstances."
During a 10-minute break, Awa and the rest of the cast pick at potato chips,
sandwiches and fresh dates on a snack table at the back of the theater and
complain about cafeteria pizza ("gross" is easily the consensus).
But they share more than school gripes. They share a youth culture run
through a multinational blender, neither the culture of their parents nor
that of their American-born peers. When Abdul recedes to the edge of the
conversation and slips a tape into his Walkman, Fatu pesters him: "What are
you listening to?"
"It's from another country," Abdul says, seemingly used to ending
"Your country?" Fatu asks.
"No," Dereen says, straining to hear the muffled chorus escaping from
Abdul's headphones. "It's Hindi."
"Bollywood!" Fatu squeals, and steals Abdul's Walkman. "I watched all these
movies in Sierra Leone." She puts on his headphones and swivels her arms and
hips just like a Bollywood star. Abdul befriended the owner of an Indian
import shop near his apartment, he explains, who lends him all the new
movies from Bombay.
Onstage, the camaraderie is evident. During Dereen's interview, his mother
sobbed as she told the story of a woman who begged her for food or a blanket
as they fled invading Iraqi soldiers. In "Children of War," Fatu will give
voice to that helpless woman. Today, she gives the line a little extra.
"Please! Give me food!" she says with goofy melodrama. "Pleeeaaaaaase, give
me foooood!!!" Abdul bellows, mug-faced, trying to outdo her. Everyone
giggles. Later, when Amirsehi is about to speak, Abdul turns to her and, for
no apparent reason, bugs his eyes wildly. Amirsehi laughs, and misses her
line. The laughter is infectious. It takes a dozen tries to get the group
through the scene without giggling. "Come on ... " Chong says, drawing the
words out like a parent. "I'm getting upset ..."
After rehearsal, the students gather in a corner of the theater. When they
are asked why they have volunteered to put their lives on display, their
tone is surprisingly defiant: They are determined to change people's minds.
About them, about their countries, about immigrants. The sudden gravity is a
striking transformation from the antics that dominated rehearsal.
"My dad, sometimes he goes like this," Abdul says, pantomiming a limp. "Kids
asked what happened. I say they hit him with a ... bullet. The kids said,
Shut up, you liar, he fell from somewhere."
Last year, when Fatu's world history teacher at Annandale High asked her
class if they could imagine how horrible burning bodies must smell, Fatu
said she remembered. The other kids didn't believe her. They made fun of
her. She wanted to run to the bathroom, she says; she wanted to cry. "And
some people pretend they believe," she says, "but then behind your back,
they're like, She's a liar!"
"At school, people can be so cruel sometimes," Dereen agrees. No matter how
often he explains that he is Kurdish, they assume he's an Iraqi who loves
Hussein, or terrorists, or both. "They just don't listen to you," he says.
"And the newspapers and magazines, they describe the Kurdish people as dirty
people who eat with their hands in villages, but we're not that way," he
says, anger beginning to break through his placid demeanor. "I'm tired of
explaining. I'm tired of it!"
"Now, people will listen," he says firmly. Everyone nods. "That's why
they're paying a lot of money for tickets. To listen to us."
What will they learn? "I'm hoping that this show will open parents' eyes,"
Yarvin says. "So they learn not to neglect their kids, not to mistreat them,
not to beat them, not to treat them like trash, not to tell them that
they're dogs ... " She starts to cry, but instead of lowering her head, she
holds it high. "I want ... I want parents who right now are treating their
kids bad to learn that a kid is really valuable."
"I want people to know that 95 percent of the immigrants here, there are
circumstances that force them to come here," Awa says. ("I wanted to say
that, too!" Fatu interrupts.) "In my school, some people will be like,
African people need to go back to Africa," Awa continues, her voice icy now.
"They can't. There's a reason why they came here. We did not come from
high-middle-class families and say, Oh, let's go to the United States for
This sense of mission is what convinced Dennis Hunt that Chong's work could
be more than a fundraiser, or community outreach -- that it could be
therapeutic. The show's group dynamic is powerful, he says, similar to the
supportive dynamic you might see in group counseling. "We're one family, we
shared our pain, and we're about to tell other people about it," Dereen
But the therapeutic potential of "Children of War" is more sophisticated
than that, Hunt believes. "When you do therapy, there's an assumption that
something is wrong, and it is with you," he explains. That is especially
true among immigrants and refugees. (Of the five teenagers, only Yarvin has
been through counseling.) This project has much in common with the
counseling technique called testimony therapy.
"I say something like, 'Thank you for agreeing to share your experiences
with me. Start wherever you like.' And I'll type when they're talking,"
explains Stuart Lustig, a psychiatrist at the Boston Medical Center who has
used the technique with boys from Sudan. "We then take that narrative and
use it for something, in the political arena or the social arena," he
continues. "It transforms the person from victim or survivor to educator or
advocate. It creates some sort of meaning out of what has happened."
It also reduces the stigma of therapy. "Most cultures have some kind of
tradition of storytelling. They're telling you they're doing it because they
want to help the people who are still enslaved in Sudan and it's not because
it will help me feel better."
Now, Abdul says he wishes his father could participate in his own "Children
of War." "When I tell my story to someone, I feel good later," he says. But
his father: "He has a song, from his country. He puts it on, and then ..."
Abdul puts his face in his hands, in a pantomime of grief. "And my little
brother is like, What happened to you?"
Lustig expresses some concern that Chong directs the interviews with his
subjects and composes the script himself. "I don't think it works quite as
well," he says. "When you have people who've been directed for so long -- to
sleep where they're told to sleep, to eat where they're told to eat --
taking control of your story is a very powerful thing."
But Hunt believes the process of weaving the stories together might combine
the most important elements of testimony with the support of a group and the
satisfaction of participating in something creative. And unlike many group
therapy sessions, which one or two people may dominate, the structure of
Chong's script ensures that his performers share equally, and that,
ultimately, they share one new history.
Dereen's mother has already noticed a change in her son's manner. "Dereen's
personality is very shy. Seeing his father killed made him back off from
life," she says one evening over cardamom tea and cake in their home in
Centreville. This fall, she says, he has become more and more outgoing. "I
never knew he had so much to say!" she says, smiling. "I see almost a
Hunt hopes to take "Children of War" with the same cast to other communities
this year, and next year to develop new therapeutic models and public
education initiatives inspired by the play. Just how ambitious the project
becomes, however, may depend on funding. The center has already received
half a dozen requests from around the country to stage a performance. But
thus far, it has barely covered the costs of commissioning Chong and renting
the theater space. "It's a big investment," Hunt says of the play, which
altogether cost more than $200,000 to produce. "We still don't know how
we're going to pay for it."
The reviews will call tonight, December 4, a preview performance. But for
the kids, there is no asterisk, this is the world premiere, nothing after
will top it. Tomorrow is the gala opening, but tickets are $125, so it is
doubtful they will know anyone in the audience. Tonight, when the house
lights go up and the applause begins, they will see parents, relatives,
teachers and friends, along with the schoolchildren and counselors the
center has invited.
Chong is excited, a bit manic, nervous. Yarvin has come down with a cold,
and he's not sure if her voice is going to last. "I had to try to arrange
for her to see a doctor," Fisher says, "though she had no insurance to cover
it. I could not reach the foster care worker to find out why in the world
she did not have Medicaid or open access to care." At their last rehearsal,
Yarvin could only manage a thin rasp. "I had to stand in for her," Chong
says, and sneaks a look at Abdul. "The falsetto nearly killed me." He puts
on his best teenage girl voice: "My name is Yarvin." Abdul giggles.
Chong leads Abdul, Awa, Yarvin, Dereen and Fatu out onto the stage for a
microphone check. The technician wants them each to read a few lines. But
they don't read their own.
"The leaders of the uprising are the first to cave in," Yarvin says in a
thin, hoarse voice. "The five who opposed the uprising stand fast. For nine
months, we remain blindfolded in the graves." Amirsehi turns her head,
surprised. Yarvin is reading the grimmest of Amirsehi's lines, where she is
tortured and held in solitary confinement in Iran.
"We all get out, but the driver panics," Fatu says, borrowing from Awa's
story. "The guerrillas start shooting. My baby sister is hit." This is the
only scene that will flap unflappable Awa during the performance, but now,
when Fatu reads her lines, she can't help smiling.
The game continues. They grin wider, and then laugh, with each swapped
trauma. Zalzal Sanderson, sitting in the third row, chuckles and shakes her
Later, backstage, they fuss with their costumes. They can wear anything they
want to. Abdul is in a gray suit with a clip-on tie and shiny black shoes.
Yarvin's shirt wraps her in red roses. Awa is draped in a white Somali
dress, with patterned scarves of bright orange, red and green. Fatu wears a
long blue dress; Dereen, a pair of wide gray pants that flare at the hips, a
thick cloth sash around his waist, and a matching jacket.
Abdul grabs a handful of Kleenex and, as usual, gets everyone's attention.
"Is it okay if I cry?" he asks melodramatically. "Yes, it's okay," says
Zalzal Sanderson, watching over the kids until they go on. A few moments
later, Abdul makes a big show of blotting his eyes with a wad of tissues.
"Boo hoo hoo!" he fake blubbers.
"Come on," Amirsehi chides him, and laughs as she tugs at his tissues. Then
she moves closer, and tilts her head. "Wait," she says. "Abdul, you're
"If I think about it ..." he says, suddenly serious, and doesn't say
anything else. She gives him a long hug, and whispers in his ear in Persian.
Hunt steps into a spotlight and unfolds a sheet of paper. "Worldwide there
are 25 million refugees and 20 million displaced people," he says. "Eighty
percent are women and children. More than half are under age 18. Every day
5,000 children become refugees."
The lights go down, and the cast members walk onstage in a line, circling a
half-moon of folding chairs before taking their seats. A shallow bed of rock
salt crunches under their feet, and a pale blue moon hovers behind them,
projected on the theater's dark wall.
"Let's get started," Yarvin says, facing the audience. "Please sit."
The performance runs an hour and 20 minutes, and it feels shorter than that.
The kids miss some lines, and change others without realizing it. Yarvin
tries hard not to cough, and her voice barely holds through the end.
Everyone struggles with the same scenes that shook them on the first day of
rehearsal. Amirsehi strains to recite the names of her friends who were
killed in Iran. She weeps when she recalls getting out of prison after eight
years and reuniting with her mother, whose hair had turned from black to
completely gray. Yarvin wrestles the most visibly with her past, but Abdul
sweetly produces a handful of tissues from his pocket and slips them to her
during the show.
"Life is hard in Pakistan," Abdul says. "There is no money. My parents have
no work. They have to sell their belongings."
"My father falls. My mother screams," Dereen says. "I escape from my
mother's arms and run to him. He is bleeding badly. My father struggles to
get up. He wants to tell us he loves us. Then he falls again. My father
dies. I don't have a chance to tell him I love him. I am 5 years old."
"My mother wants to get off refugee welfare," Awa says. "She wants a job but
she does not have a car here, and Centreville has poor public
"We are so excited we run outside without our winter coats or boots," Fatu
says. "I get a bucket and fill it with snow. I want to save it and take it
back to Sierra Leone one day to show my friends."
"Three years have passed since I moved into my foster home," says Yarvin. "I
have a real family now. When I go to school my foster mother takes care of
my baby. Jose and I are still together. I have a new start and a new life in
front of me. I want to study criminal justice, but the first thing I will do
when I graduate from high school is work as a 911 dispatcher. I want to help
"You can choose anything in the world, my child, but you can never choose
your heritage," says Amirsehi, repeating a line that appears in every
"Undesirable Elements" production.
Abdul's mother shushes two of his young siblings without taking her eyes off
the stage. Dereen's mother wipes away tears throughout the show: when Dereen
talks about his father, naturally, but also when the other boys and girls
share their memories, particularly Yarvin.
It is voyeuristic. It is jarring, even if you already know what's going to
happen. And it is powerful.
As the performance nears its end, the teenagers stand up, say their names
one by one, and describe the day of their birth. Dereen speaks the show's
last line -- "On the day I was born, bombs fell on my city" -- and the
theater goes black. The audience applauds loudly. Dereen's mother, in the
second row, is the first to stand; when the lights come up the whole
audience is on its feet. The kids cling to each other, rocking back and
forth, and when Chong lopes down the aisle to join them, they just about
knock him over.
Douglas McGray is a Washington-based writer. Director Ping Chong will be
fielding questions and comments about "Children at War" at 1 p.m. Monday on
© 2003 The Washington Post Company