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Stories of survival: ‘New World’ encourages empathy toward St. Louis refugees
Afghanistan, present day. A refugee woman hides from Taliban soldiers with a group of fellow refugees and her newborn baby. She knows if the soldiers hear her baby cry, everyone will be slaughtered. So, the woman throws her baby in the water to save the lives of the others in the group.
This woman now lives in St. Louis. After escaping the horrors of Afghanistan, she fled to the United States in hopes of a better life. Her story of survival, as well as those of other refugee women, are featured in Gitana Production’s play “New World.” Gitana is a non-profit whose mission is to provide global healing through music, dance and drama. The play will be the final event of Webster University’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference on March 1.
“‘New World’ is [about] three representative women,” playwright Lee Patton Chiles said. “Three women from three different places on the earth: Congo and Bosnia and Afghanistan, and all of them in the situation of having to escape their country. They all ended up in refugee camps for a long time and suffered horribly in the process of the escape and in the camps. Then, all three of them ended up in St. Louis.”
Patton Chiles began interviewing refugee women about three years ago. While the Congolese and Bosnian characters were each based on one woman, Patton Chiles developed the female Afghan character through over 20 separate interviews.
“I spent a year with Afghanistan women who had escaped the Taliban,” Patton Chiles said. “The first time I walked in there, they were all sitting sitting down, all hunched over with their head coverings on. I looked at them, and I thought, ‘they have no safe place.’ They had no safe place in their hearts to go to refresh themselves.”
Some of the stories were told in Patton’s earlier play, My Heart is Always Shaking: Afghan Women in St. Louis, which debuted in 2009. Those remaining were incorporated into the Afghan woman’s character in “New World.”
Gitana’s founder and Executive Director Cecilia Nadal said the play made real change in the St. Louis community. Nadal gave an example of a refugee’s first experience in a grocery store, where she assumed the government was watching her because the cart continued to move toward her after she let go of the handle.
“Some women in the audience laughed about that and they said, ‘I go to stores in south St. Louis and see the women with hijabs all the time, and I just generally ignore them,’” Nadal said. “‘Now that I know what they’ve been through, I’m going to make it a point to say hello to them and welcome them.’ We’ve had these kinds of responses to the play, and that’s what we’re trying to do–make those lenses much more clear and personal, so that we can have more compassion.”
Embracing the Role
When “New World” premieres at Webster University, it will be the play’s third remount. In this performance, senior Natalie Walker will fulfill the role of the Bosnian refugee, Jasmina.
Nadal said Walker was able to not only look the part, but she was also able to skillfully convey the emotional transitions that accompany the refugee experience.
“This particular role is very compelling, and it’s very tragic,” Nadal said. “This was a woman who had children. She went through rape by soldiers and watched her husband killed in front of her eyes. It is a true story that comes from a Bosnian woman who lived in St. Louis, and [Walker] has to be able to go into those moments of remembering the joy of her family before the war, and then looking at the tragedy after the war, and then looking forward to a new life in America, specifically in St. Louis.”
Patton Chiles said she cast Walker due to her “remarkable spirit” and “wonderful social conscience.”
“She auditioned, and she was the right fit,” Patton Chiles said. “Her heart and her head are in the right place, always.”
Walker said the most challenging part of the process was researching the harsh conditions the refugee women endured before and after they came to America.
“My only desire is to serve this story, and in order to do so, I want to understand the events these women endured,” Walker said. “I have been incredibly fortunate that I have never experienced the wars and horrors that these women did. Learning more about what it was like to live through these experiences has been hard to stomach, but important to learn about.”
Nadal’s career is based upon educating people to empathize with those who come from different backgrounds and experiences. Before starting Gitana, she owned a business called Productive Futures, Inc., where she spent 21 years working to help immigrants succeed in America.
“I felt that I finally got onto something that could make a change in St. Louis,” Nadal said. “I placed 8,000 people in jobs over the course of my career with Productive Futures, but the idea of helping people to be more introspective and sensitive in getting to know people who were different than them was one of the most important things I could do for this community.”
Patton Chiles said students should take advantage of the opportunity to see a play that highlights an underrepresented group.
“They’re not coming over here to take our jobs,” Patton Chiles said. “They are fleeing horrible situations. When they get over here, they have a lot to offer us, and we need to help them get here.”
Nadal hoped students who see “New World” at Webster will gain a less superficial understanding of the refugees living in their own community. As a Webster University alumna, she felt on-campus was an ideal place to show the play because of its “global orientation.”
“In many ways, by seeing them we see ourselves,” Gitana founder Cecilia Nadal said. “I want people to feel [what refugees have been through] and to understand that we can be real agents of change for these people. If we can’t look at them and feel something deep inside about our own heritage, then something’s wrong.”
New World will debut at Webster on March 1 at 1:30 p.m. in the Luhr building on the Eden Seminary Campus. Cecilia Nadal, Lee Patton Chiles and Kristin Bulin (the former Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture and War Trauma) will be available for a Question and Answer session following the performance. Nadal also hopes to include a St. Louis refugee on the Q&A panel.