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Arts and Culture

Portland Youth Writing Program Being Recognized by White House

The Portland-based writing center, the Telling Room, is being recognized by the White House next week. The center will receive a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for its work with refugee and immigrant high school students. The program helps students write and publish stories to increase literacy and to connect them with their communities and themselves.

Eighteen-year old Nila Seddiqi has done plenty of writing in school - and she's developed some pretty strong feelings about it. "I hate writing," she says. "I mean I hate it."

Then she came to the Telling Room, and it flipped a switch.

"But now I love it," she says.

Seddiqi is part of the Young Writers and Leaders program, where she can write about whatever she wants - and that's made all the difference. There's a lot on her mind. She's from Afghanistan, and moved to Maine two years ago.

"The Telling Room gives you the chance to write about what you want, and they give you the time to listen to you," she says.

"Over and over we've heard there is a need for programs to support the refugee and immigrant community," says Heather Davis, executive director of the Telling Room.

"They're facing tremendous obstacles because of their literacy skills, and a lot of them have experienced trauma before they make it to the states," Davis says. "It's hard enough for any teenager to find their way though high school, but with everything these kids have going on, we realized they needed a special place where they could connect with kids like them."

Young Writers and Leaders is a free program that serves about 45 kids annually. Some come to the Telling Room for one-week intensives, others come once a week after school for an entire year. Students sharpen their writing skills with three projects: a personal narrative, a multimedia project, and poetry.

"Today is our first day of poetry. We're going to talk all about poetry for the next four or five weeks," said Molly Haley an instructor for Young Writers and Leaders. She says the program develops both literacy and leadership skills.

"We publish each student in a book," Haley says. "We offer them as many opportunities as possible to stand up in front of an audience and share their story with a crowd."

High school senior Ibrahim Shkara completed the program last year and published a poem called "Cairo Kid."

"I am a person who has lived in three different countries on three continents, but I still don't know where my home is," Shkara says.

Before coming to Maine, Shkara lived in Iraq and Egypt. Next week, he'll expand his travels to Washington, DC., when he'll go to the White House to accept the Telling Room's award from Michelle Obama. Shkara says more than anything else, the Young Writers and Leaders Program helped him learn about himself. When he writes, he says he feels weight lifted off his chest.

"I'm a person who could sometimes be sad for days but I didn't know why," Shkara says. "But when I start to write about them, I feel why. I just write, and feel like I can solve it. I can see why I'm upset, and … can solve the problem from that writing."

Beyond writing, the Young Writers and Leaders Program aims to help kids envision future success. Students visit local colleges and get help with application essays. The program has become so popular that even though it has tripled its student base, there's still a waiting list of about 50 more kids.

"I just feel like the luckiest guy because I'm here in this program," says Mohammed Albehadli. He says he applied after witnessing the transformation of friends who went through it. "I look at this program as basically a place where I can discover what's inside before what's outside. I'm at a point in life where I want to see who I really am before I get out in the real world and go to college and start dealing with big stuff."

The Telling Room will receive $10,000 as part of the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. Heather Davis says it will help grow the Young Writers and Leaders program. She wants to at least double the number of students it serves, and expand to other communities like Lewiston.