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How do you make ancient artifacts feel relevant in 2020? One prestigious archaeology museum looked at its objects from the Middle East, Africa and Central America and decided to hire refugees from those parts of the world to work as docents. Immigrants from places such as Iraq and Guatemala take visitors through the museum and connect relics from the distant past to the present. NPR's Neda Ulaby was one of those visitors.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: My docent at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology shows up for our tour wearing a dark green hijab and a radiant smile that warms up the museum's chilly marble halls.
MOUMENA SARADAR: Thank you so much for coming. My name is Moumena Saradar. I'm from Syria.
ULABY: Saradar immigrated 3 1/2 years ago with her husband and five kids. Back in Damascus, she worked as a lab tech in a hospital. Now she guides visitors through a collection of Sumerian coins and clay tablets that are almost unimaginably ancient.
SARADAR: The oldest artifact here are 7,000 years old.
ULABY: In some ways, these docents are extremely traditional, says Kevin Schott. He helps run interpretive programs at the museum.
KEVIN SCHOTT: They get all the regular tour guide trainings. They can tell you all about the ancient history of these artifacts, the archaeological background of them and things like that.
ULABY: But these guides also work with professional storytellers to bridge their lives with the artifacts on display, like the fabulous jewelry excavated from the tomb of a powerful Sumerian queen.
SARADAR: I love Queen Puabi because she reminds me with my wedding day and wedding customs and traditions.
ULABY: Moumena Saradar says Queen Puabi's golden rings and bracelets are not unlike what many Middle Eastern brides wear today.
SARADAR: On my wedding day - guess what (laughter) - I got approximately about two pounds of real gold. So I got that amazing feeling, like - I'm a queen (laughter).
ULABY: Nearly a dozen other museums have asked about developing similar programs using refugees as docents. And there's already one in place at Oxford University's anthropology museum in England. The director of the Penn Museum, Julian Siggers, says his institution owes its existence to artifacts legally excavated in Iraq in the 1800s.
JULIAN SIGGERS: I mean, this is the part of the world where not only do you see the first cities but you see the first writing, the first irrigation, the first astronomy.
ULABY: How meaningful, he says, to have docents from Syria and Iraq.
SIGGERS: We all have this enormous debt to these cultures of the ancient Near East. And of course, this is where they're from, and they're very, very proud of that.
ULABY: The Penn Museum's seven Global Guides, as they're called, also come from Mexico, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That's where Clay Katongo's from. He just started working as a docent.
CLAY KATONGO: I love this place.
ULABY: Katongo's taking a group of visitors through the museum's collection of African religious artifacts. He tells them about his main job as a pastor in a West Philadelphia church.
KATONGO: We have, in our church, a day care because that area is mostly immigrants. So this way, they can make money and leave not depending on other people and contribute to the advancement of this country.
ELLEN OWENS: One of the big goals of this project was actually to provide jobs for people that are immigrants and refugees.
ULABY: Ellen Owens, the Penn Museum's director of learning and public engagement, dreamt up this program with her colleague Kevin Schott. They got a grant in 2017 to kick it off and found their guides through local nonprofits that aid refugees. Schott says the guides work part time, get paid about $20 an hour and the museum staff helps them adjust to their jobs.
SCHOTT: I think we often forget all the dumb things we know about having a job in America, like how to get sick time, HR procedures, W-2 forms - so like, a lot to learn about getting a job. And so one of the things we put in the original grant was to give time to actually train them for some job readiness.
ULABY: But Schott says the real winner is the museum. The Global Guides have turned out to be invaluable in translating documents in Arabic and other languages. They've helped curators doing research in Iraq. And a third of visitors now tell the museum they came specifically to tour with a Global Guide.
KATONGO: This is my culture. This is my story.
ULABY: Clay Katongo says the tragedies of other countries can sometimes feel as remote as an artifact locked away in a glass case.
KATONGO: You need, sometimes, to hear the story of someone.
ULABY: Stories bridging people, countries and precious items from a past that suddenly feels like something we share.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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