SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
An unlikely cast has taken the stage for sold-out performances in New Haven, Conn. They're not professional actors. They're people from Iraq and Afghanistan, vets and refugees from those countries. The play is called "Voices From The Long War" and it looks at life during and after the battles. As Lucy Nalpathanchil from member station WNPR reports, the small cast hopes that by telling their personal stories they can dispel some misconceptions about who they are.
LUCY NALPATHANCHIL, BYLINE: Two weeks before opening night, the cast is rehearsing in a building on the Yale campus in downtown New Haven.
KEVIN HOURIGAN: Ready? So strong entrance.
NALPATHANCHIL: Later, director Kevin Hourigan asks them about their performances so far.
HOURIGAN: What's effective? What do you guys feel like is working?
ALI AL-SAADI: Feeling comfortable, like, whenever you're speaking. You're feeling comfortable. It's like you don't have to, like, be afraid of what you have to say.
NALPATHANCHIL: That's Ali Al-Saadi. He's an Iraqi refugee who makes time for rehearsals before he begins his overnight shift at an Amazon warehouse. It's not a job he ever expected to hold. He speaks several languages and he graduated from school in Italy to become an officer in the Iraqi Navy. After the war began, he was hired as an interpreter for the U.S. military. Then, as he says in the play, this happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "VOICES FROM THE LONG WAR")
AL-SAADI: The people will start shouting, spies, spies, spies. Why you working with Americans? When they stopped us, they shot my friend in front of me, and his blood was all over my face. And they told me that's a message for you. If you don't quit, you're next.
NALPATHANCHIL: He fled Iraq but couldn't bring his family with him. His wife was pregnant at the time. And Al-Saadi says only contact with his now 2-year-old son has been through Skype.
AL-SAADI: It's like whenever he see me, like, on Skype, he ask me, like who is this? And, you know, my wife, she told him that's your dad. He goes like no, my dad is gone. He thinks I'm dead.
NALPATHANCHIL: The personal stories of the three refugees and three veterans make up the entire script. The idea came from Tom Berry. He was an infantry officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan and is now a Yale graduate student. He remembers walking by the university's war memorial inscribed with the names of alumni who died while serving their country.
TOM BERRY: The legacy is not just with us, the veterans. It's with those communities that got drawn in, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly.
NALPATHANCHIL: Berry contacted the Telling Project. Since 2008, the nonprofit has been talking to veterans and their families and then writing scripts around their stories that they, not actors, perform on stage. Telling Project founder Jonathan Wei says this is the first time his group has combined the stories of veterans and refugees.
JONATHAN WEI: We do have these conceptions. And we have these conceptions of soldier and refugee. And when it comes down to it, conceptions are always going to fall short.
NALPATHANCHIL: Wei and his staff will first record the interviews with people who agree to participate and then turn their exact words into a script. In his interview, Iraqi cast member Maher Mahmood remembers being 14 years old and playing with binoculars when an American soldier ran up to him.
MAHER MAHMOOD: I was very afraid. I believe he said, like, why you do this? We almost shoot you. Some of the kids, they run. Like, imagine if I run, they will shoot me. But I didn't run. I sit in the ground and don't say nothing.
NALPATHANCHIL: When he got older, Mahmood worked for a U.S. contractor, but that job led to death threats and an assassination attempt on his father. Two years ago, his family came to the U.S. And the 22-year-old says Americans didn't really get his story.
MAHMOOD: When people call me refugee, just, like, hurt me. Don't call me refugee again because, I mean, they don't understand what's the meaning refugee is.
NALPATHANCHIL: Getting people to understand is the point, says fellow cast member and former Marine Tom Burke.
TOM BURKE: The constitution that I fought for was the one where people can come from anywhere in the world and make themselves a better life. And so I think that especially listening to somebody like Asadullah's or Ali's or Maher's story, you hear that that's the true American story. They're working as hard as they can to really make their lives better. And I think that Americans have a lot to learn from that sort of American ethos.
NALPATHANCHIL: The cast hopes after the show closes similar plays can be staged in other cities and towns so more people can understand what it means to be a veteran or a refugee. For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in New Haven.
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