ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to spend some time now with the young man who has seen a lot in his 18 years. Writing helps him deal with what he's been through, and he wants to give other young people that same outlet.
Ahmed Badr was 8 years old when a bomb hit his family's home in Baghdad. The family was uninjured. They moved to Syria which was peaceful then, and in 2008, they came to the United States as refugees.
AHMED BADR: We went from Damascus to Budapest to New York City to Chicago to South Dakota. And on that plane ride, we tried to figure out how to pronounce Sioux Falls. So we're like, oh, we're going to the Souks (ph) Falls.
SHAPIRO: In Baghdad, his parents were civil engineers. In the U.S., they worked minimum wage jobs - Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Writing helped Ahmed figure out what it meant to be an Iraqi-American kid. When he came into our studio, I asked him to read a poem that he wrote earlier this year. It's called "A Thank You Letter From The Bomb That Visited My Home 11 Years Ago."
BADR: (Reading) Dear Ahmed, I knew that I was going to change your life. I knew that as soon as I entered your old home in Baghdad, your dad Mathem (ph) was holding your sister Mariam (ph) in the kitchen. Your mom Hannah (ph) was near the dryer. I found a place between them. You were away at your grandparents' home, so we didn't get to meet. You didn't know this at the time, but I was a dud missile, designed to destroy, but not explode.
I entered your home through the bathroom window, made my way through the walls of the kitchen cabinet and sneaked through three natural gas canisters. You know, those old ones your mom used for cooking? I'm sorry for leaving gaping holes through each one. I was in a rush. Good thing your dad emptied them out before my visit.
I've been reading your articles. I noticed that you've mentioned me a lot, which first made me very uncomfortable. I'm not used to being recognized. I usually turn children like you and your sister into dust. When meeting new people, my palms tend to be bloody. Haven't you always wondered why your dad rarely spoke about me? He told you that tragedies always ended with a period, but yours ended with a semi-colon. You moved on to great things, but I was still there, watching. Most tragedies never fully disappear. They share your breath, your blood and walk around the ridges of your ribcage when they can't fall asleep. But you were different.
For some reason, I couldn't live within you. I couldn't share your breath or your blood. You wouldn't let me. Maybe it's because you weren't there. I know that every night before you fall asleep, you ask yourself what would have happened if you were there to meet me? I'm writing to thank you. Thank you for using me for good. Know that my body changes locations without my permission. I don't enjoy meeting new people. I don't relish in the destruction. I'm designed to collect breaths and keep them to myself. No matter which side I'm working for this purpose never changes. Us bombs never get to choose who to visit.
You came back to visit me two years ago. You didn't see my body, of course. That was long gone. But you saw the window in the bathroom where I first introduced myself. It was now fixed, but I was still there. You were alone, and the rest of your family was outside. And you took out your phone to take a picture of me, but you were out of storage. You laughed at the irony. You put your phone down and stared at me. And I stared back. You smiled and walked away. And in that moment, I realized that your survival is my only salvation.
SHAPIRO: That's 18-year-old Ahmed Badr reading his poem "A Thank You Letter From The Bomb That Visited My Home 11 Years Ago." Over time, Ahmed realized that his writing helped other people understand who he was and where he came from.
BADR: There was this feeling of empowerment that was just almost overnight. All of a sudden, people were interested in my story. They were interested in Iraq. They were interested in the Middle East. They were interested in that duality that was beginning to form, this Iraqi-American duality. And so with that in mind, two years passed and I thought, OK, well, this was great, but this is only helping me. And this is only helping my own expression.
So how about I take that feeling and that space that I created for myself and turn it into something that allows youth refugee or otherwise all over the world to do the same exact thing?
SHAPIRO: Ahmed started a website called Narratio. Young people from all over the world submit poems, photographs, essays and stories. Ahmed curates them, and he's expanded the program into workshops to help young people learn how to express themselves.
I know that you don't line edit the pieces, but you are sort of screener editor. You decide what goes on the website. What are you looking for?
BADR: What we're looking for is pure, creative expression of youth from all over the world. There's no boxes that we want our contributors to exist within. This is the space for you. This is your community. You can do whatever you want with it, but at the heart of every piece that is represented is this theme of empowerment and this self-empowerment through your own creative expression, no one else, but you.
You're telling your story. You're expressing yourself through your own experience, and it's very, very hard to dispute that. It's very hard to denounce someone's own personal experience. I think that's something that's incredibly beautiful, but storytelling is that - storytelling doesn't have to be divisive. Storytelling is meant to bring people together, and I think Narratio tries to capture that within every published post and every workshop.
SHAPIRO: Why do you do this?
BADR: We went back to Iraq two years ago. Me, my father, my mother and my little sister went back for the first time since leaving 2006. And I was speaking with my cousins who are a couple of years older than I am and are in college. It's very hard, and it's very - this guilt starts to form. So when you ask me that question, why do I do all of this? I want to be able to turn that guilty feeling that I had when my cousins asked me what are you up to into a responsibility.
I want to turn the guilt into responsibility and make it possible for them to be able to answer that question as freely as they would like to. And so if I can do that by giving them a website that they can share their stories on, that's a step in the right direction. So I think everything I do is first and foremost an appreciation of my own family my parents and everything that they've sacrificed for me to be at this point, but also to provide an opportunity for my cousins and my family and all the Iraqi youth that have the potential and have the skills to do so many amazing things, but simply not - they simply don't have the opportunity to do so. Iraq has 36 million people. Eighteen million are under the age of 19. And that's a demographic that I feel personally responsible to.
SHAPIRO: Ahmed Badr, congratulations on everything that you have been doing and thank you for coming to talk with us about it.
BADR: Thank you so much, Ari. It's a pleasure.
SHAPIRO: Ahmed Badr has just finished his freshman year at Wesleyan University. This summer, he's working with the U.N. Migration Agency to create a podcast that tells the stories of migrants and refugees around the world. It's called "Together."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.