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Learning from the Refugee Journey

By Melissia Mason
For our first speaker series event of the 2021-2022 school year, we welcomed Sandglass Theater to present the film Babylon: Journey of Refugees. This film adaptation of a live stage performance engages the audience with puppetry, song, and personal reflection to tell a universal story of the refugee experience. 

Sandglass Theater, located in Putney, Vermont, is dedicated to using the arts of theatre and puppetry to explore and spark dialogue about contemporary issues. Based on the stories of nine refugees who settled in Vermont from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and Somalia, Babylon is a stage performance that was translated to film during last year’s COVID restrictions. 

Four members of the Sandglass team—director Eric Bass, performers Shoshana Bass and Kaitee Yaeko Tredway, and Emma’s own Luke Stavrand ’02, who was involved with the development of the Journey game and workshop—visited the Emma Willard School campus to screen the film, hold talk-back sessions, participate in classroom presentations, and facilitate the Refugee Journey workshop. Interim Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion Gemma Halfi shares that most people in the community didn't quite know what to expect from the experience. “That was intentional,” she notes, “because we didn't want to take away from the authenticity of the experience.”

“I think students heard the word ‘puppets’ and assumed that it was something geared towards children,” Gemma shares, “or they felt skeptical about the validity of these very painful stories being told through puppetry. Once we saw the filmed production together as a school, it was clear that the students immediately understood the beauty and power behind this kind of storytelling.” 

Asked why they chose the medium of puppetry for social justice work, Shoshana shared, “The puppet elicits empathy and you as the audience have to invest in its existence in order for it to have a presence. When we’ve dehumanized a group of people, the simplicity, honesty, and limitations of the puppets can make us more willing to feel empathy.” In essence, we transfer our compassion from the puppets to those who are living the experiences that are portrayed.

The arts are a perfect tool for exploring social justice work. “Art is not about arriving in a particular place,” Eric shared, drawing a parallel between the artist’s journey and the journeys depicted in their stories. “It’s about committing to showing up and figuring it out along the way. [Our work] is as much about the refugee stories as it is about the conversations that are had by others in response to the refugee experience... taking the steps to humanize those who are impacted.” 

In the Refugee Journey workshop, participants engaged with a board game called Refugee Journey, created by USCRI Vermont’s Laurie Stavrand in collaboration with Jana Zeller (design) and Sandglass Theater. It recreates the emotional experience of refugees trying to find safety; Sandglass performers play the roles of border guards, smugglers, medical officers, and immigration interviewers. These characters directly confront participants in order to personalize the refugee experience in all its danger, unfairness, and bureaucracy. The game illustrates the  impossible choices many refugees must make, and highlights the fact that only 1% of refugees ever reach a new homeland.

In addition to the on-campus events, Sandglass held a film screening and talk-back session that was open to the community and featured panelists from the local refugee community, as well as our own Khadija G. ’19. This community engagement is part of the work Sandglass does in every community where they perform. 

“Sandglass Theater did an amazing job of capturing the essence of these stories of displacement and translating them to a beautiful and compelling puppetry performance,” Gemma shares. “It's important to me that we all walk away from this experience with deepened empathy for those different from ourselves, both within and across borders.”

The dynamic experience provided by Sandglass Theater opened our eyes to the ways in which we sometimes objectify human lives and disregard the lived experience of others. It is in these moments of engagement that we expand our world view and discover new ways to impact our world for the better.
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    • The Sandglass Theater team with the Babylon puppets (L-R: Kaitee Yaeko Tredway, Shoshana Bass, Eric Bass, Luke Stavrand '02)

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