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Refugees have been called security threats. They've been depicted as invaders. Now a new critically acclaimed play called "Noura" puts the experience of Iraqi refugees onstage. The writers have ties to the Middle East. Productions were staged in Washington and New York this year and will eventually be in regional theaters. NPR's Deborah Amos has the story.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When Heather Raffo, an award-winning playwright and actor, ran a writers workshop in New York with women from the Middle East, she heard a common theme. The women wrote powerful personal stories of leaving home and country forever.
HEATHER RAFFO: The handful of them that had fled within an inch of their lives to become their full selves unapologetically was so breathtaking. And it's only because they had to - to survive.
AMOS: The stories inspired her to write and star in "Noura," part-refugee tale, part-Ibsen's "Doll House" (ph) reimagined. Before she opened in Washington, Raffo tested out the authenticity with readings in immigrant communities. The men weren't so sure.
RAFFO: But that woman would never swear like that, the wife.
AMOS: The women said they identified with Raffo's central character.
RAFFO: And then you hear tee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee in the corner. And it's three Christian Iraqi women going - well, no, that's exactly how it goes down at home when we're angry. So you get that when you go into a community and get what people think.
AMOS: The drama has struck a chord with audiences at a time when the question - who gets to be an American? - is a heated political debate. After the New York performance, she heard from immigrants in the audience - this was their story, too.
RAFFO: Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans - they wanted to stay for the talkback and just say, this is my grandmother's story. This is my family's history.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "NOURA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing unintelligibly).
AMOS: The plot features Noura and her husband, Tareq. They fled Iraq eight years earlier, and they've made it with American passports and even American names - Nora and Tim and a son named Alex.
RAFFO: (As Noura) (Unintelligible) You get to meet Maryam tomorrow.
AMOS: But questions of belonging and identity surface when a 20-year-old refugee arrives from Iraq on Christmas Eve. The play is a searing portrait of the emotional cost of displacement.
SARAB KAMOO: I could see my mom and her, and I could see my aunts in her. There's nothing that happens in this play that I'm not like - oh, yeah, of course.
AMOS: Sarab Kamoo has been to the performance three times, she says, to see refugees portrayed as she knows them in real life onstage for the first time. Sara Hassan has been to the play twice.
SARA HASSAN: It's a very interesting, like, combination of things. It's like - it's this amazing, like, familiarity of, like - look, they mentioned this food I love and this food I grew up with. And like, the words - it's so cool to hear it on a stage. And you look at the audience, and a lot of them are American. And it's like - if anything, I start wondering, what are they thinking?
AMOS: Born in Baghdad 25 years ago, her parents left Iraq when she was a toddler. For her, the play expresses unspoken family pain.
HASSAN: One, I really just wish my mom could have seen it because it's, to me, putting words so much to what I think she and my grandparents might have felt, having left their country and not really being able to ever go back to their home.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello, everyone.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello.
AMOS: Women from the writers workshop often come to see the production. Mentored by Raffo, their personal narratives are the inspiration for struggles over identity, says Monna Sabouri.
MONNA SABOURI: I am a scrambled egg - neither egg yolk, neither white - inseparable, American and Iranian.
AMOS: The writing workshops opened a path for her to examine her family's story at a time when paths for immigration to the U.S. are closing for endangered relatives.
SABOURI: I don't know if this is a term that's coined yet. But diasporic guilt of - I should be there; why am I here? - was a thing that all of the women in our workshop were talking about.
AMOS: Playwright and star Heather Raffo is an unusual voice in the theater. Her mother is an American from Michigan; her father, an Iraqi Christian from Mosul, his family scattered by war.
RAFFO: My family doesn't live there anymore. I have two cousins left in the country, and that's out of over a hundred.
AMOS: Raffo says she can translate the refugee trauma for an American audience.
RAFFO: And that's because I grew up as a blonde, white Michigan girl that has an entire Iraqi family. So I'm always a bridge builder. I'm always in between.
AMOS: A bridge that's worth the journey.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABAJI'S "SERENITY")
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