Theater group helps immigrant and refugee students share their stories

The audience for El Teatro included high school teachers. (Photo by Jordan Neel/Cronkite News)

Students from across the globe gathered in Tempe to share their stories as part of a performance arts group, El Teatro, that gives immigrant and refugee youth a voice.

“Sometimes the simplest question is the hardest to answer. Who am I? We are all more than what we appear to be,” a student performer from Somalia told the audience.

“We have amazing students whose stories need to be told, but also when you look at extracurricular activities, they weren’t representative of our student body at all,” said Jessica Cooney, a high school teacher.

Cooney started the theater arts group 9 years ago to help introduce immigrant and refugee students to the larger community.

El Teatro began as a growing number of refugees resettled in the region.

“My students are amazingly inspiring. And I have kids myself, and when I think about what I want my kids to see as role models, they are it.”

The goal of El Teatro this year is to challenge perceptions about immigration.

“I think biases and racism exist because we don’t know. Let’s make an assumption because well, we don’t know them. So that’s why we do this. I want to educate,” said Cooney.

Every year students go through an application and audition process to participate in El Teatro. Through the auditions, the directors invite around 25 students to be a part of the show.

“It’s amazing because I want to inspire people. Seeing their eyes when they first see our show, it’s amazing,” said Florence Niyokwizera, a Senior from Africa.

Every year students create a performance based on their life experiences.

“Our show went from being in 2 languages to 10 and then now, it’s at 15,” said Cooney.

Students speak a variety of languages including Spanish, Thai, Karenni, Amharic, and Somali. Throughout the performance, they use both English and their native language, as well as perform native dances.

“My story is about taking advantage of education because not everyone around the world has school, or they have to pay for it, or there is conflict with war or fighting in their country,” said Hsaw Meh, an 11th grader from Burma. “My older siblings, they didn’t go to school,” said Meh.

“Anyone can be involved. It doesn’t have to be students whose backgrounds and cultures are other than the United States or English.” said Cooney. Last year, one student shared her story about graduating after attending school with special needs.

“She told her story in a different light and struggle, and it was totally different than theirs, but it was relatable because it was still a struggle,” said Cooney.

Some students use El Teatro to focus on divided families, lack of educational opportunities, or living in a war zone. All have found ways to build lives in their new country.

“I am an optimist. I hate nothing because hate is what makes the world a terrible place,” said Sahro, a performer, from Somalia.