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“I Am America,” award-winning poet reflects on life as immigrant in Columbus

614now Staff

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Escaped war; war never escaped me.

Larry Smith’s six-word memoirs are an exercise designed to cut through the extraneous, and find the fundamental truths at someone’s core in a provocative, intriguing, and immediate way.

So when Sara Abou Rashed wrote the six-word sentence above at a workshop for teens led by Smith at the Thurber House in 2015, he knew he had found someone special—but just how special, was still yet to be discovered.

Smith later caught up with Rashed at a TEDX talk.

She had won the 2015 Ohio Poetry Association High School Contest, a mere two years from arriving in the country from Syria and learning English. Smith began to work with her as a storyteller, and discovered the extent of her remarkable gifts for narrative and poetry and for holding an audience.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re amazing. You are a brilliant storyteller,’” Smith gasped.

Smith and Rashed began a journey that has culminated in a new venture for both of them: a 70-minute play/story written and told by Rashed, and edited and directed by Smith.

A Map of Myself is Rashed’s remarkable exploration of her identity and her search for home: reflective, dramatic, humorous, revolutionary, and hopeful all at once.

Now Smith and Rashed’s creation, which began with a meeting at workshop, has become a workshop and educational piece in itself. The story has found its home in the capital city.

“In the end it’s a Columbus thing,” said Smith. “If you have a good idea and you work hard, people want to help you make your vision come true.”

In the audience for Rashed and Smith’s first show last month at King-Lincoln Theatre, we did our own reflection on how Rashed’s narrative has been shaped by country, city, and and her many cultures.

These are her words from A Map of Myself (11.7 and 11.10 @ Columbus Museum of Art), explored from stage to page.

The Loaded Question

“Where are you from?”

Identity and belonging are fluid…I’m a Palestinian-Syrian-American. In Syria, I was Palestinian. In Palestine, I wouldn’t be Palestinian because I never lived there. And I only became Syrian coming here, to the U.S. So this is why I say it is really fluid, and it’s more complicated than “Oh, I’m from here.” So I think that’s something really cool to explore, just how intermixing with another country redefines who you are.

The Human Condition

“There are mean girls everywhere.”

Through living in different countries, I have come to realize that the same exact people exist in those different countries. They just speak a different language. I see people here, in America who speak English who are blonde or whatever, and they remind me of people I’ve known in Syria.

They look nothing alike, but they have the same exact persona, same charisma, same movement, same walk, same talk.

I would look at my mom and I’d say, “Doesn’t she remind you of so-and-so?” That there are mean girls everywhere—it’s so universal because in each of those countries the same culture, the same people exist.

And a lot of people don’t realize that. They look at others and go, “Oh they’re so different.” But they’re really not. The language is different, the culture is different, the religion—but the essence of what makes up a human is not.

Arabic the Language

“For love alone we have 14 words to describe its many stages. Now like me, you would probably think love is just one stage—right?—love being a bitch.”

Arabic is a very eloquent and elaborative language. You don’t just have the word love….We have all these different stages of love, all these different names that then become what we know as love.

So each verb that there is in English to describe that, like “I fancy that person, I like, I love, I adore, I’m infatuated,” we have 14 of those, and all of them make up love—almost like a matrix. Like, how exactly do you feel about that person?

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Learning English

“Word for word I translated The Odyssey.

I remember a lot of learning English and I truthfully just sat down and translated every single word, and I would keep playing it on Google Translate and I would repeat the word after it.

And then the next day we’d discuss it in class and listen to how people would pronounce the word and I’d try to pronounce it that same way. And that’s how I learned English.

It helped that I was young—I was 13, 14. It was a very, very painful process. I was really sad through it because I always felt like I didn’t do good enough or I wasn’t learning as fast as I should be, because I was held to the same standards as American students…I worked twice as hard, maybe more to catch up. I learned hundreds of words per day.

Immigrant Identity

“I’m an immigrant not because I want to be, but because they keep reminding me I’m one.”

I think there’s this misconception that immigrants are dying to go to a better country…people just don’t realize that immigrants never wanted to lose their country.

No matter how bad it is, no matter how poor, they were happy being there. So the idea of immigration—at times it feels like an insult. They’re like, “Oh you’re an immigrant,” like you’re one of those people who leave and they want better things and they’re after a better life and they want freedom.

But you know, it’s really all in our heads. Every country has freedom to an extent. So it’s not that the immigrant is trying to suck the sources and life out of the host country they come to.

It’s that they’re really miserable being immigrants. It’s not a fun thing to be.

Religion

“I’m not perfect, but my religion, like all religions, is, and I’m proud to be a Muslim woman.”

I find religion to be perfect at the core, what it’s trying to do.

Ultimately, all religions have the exact same goals: kindness, forgiveness, community, love. So it sounds really counterintuitive that religious people of different religions would hate each other.


A Map of Us

For Columbus influencers in the audience, Abou Rashed’s show was a reflection of country and community. Their thoughts:

David Brown • Harmony Project

I don’t know how she did it. Sara Abou Rashed and I have very little in common. But through A Map of Myself I found myself in her shoes, in her head, and in her heart…and left with her in mine.

Based on the response of the audience, it was a shared experience. That she is standing there, speaking perfect English, accomplished beyond her years or any expectations of her as a new American is worthy of an audience in and of itself.

However, it is the comfort and discomfort she so freely shares, and the grace with which she navigates both the pain and passion of her life so far that brought the room to its feet. Sara’s map led her to Columbus. We are all better for it.

Barbara Fant • Columbus Foundation

Being able to see her story in action was both moving and inspirational. Her story is powerful, and to see the way she brings it to life is equally explosive.

By wrestling with language, it is through her art that she has now given birth to a new language, one that invites us into her story, her world, but also the world of so many in our community.

I am so thankful that she is in this community and that we can wrap our arms around her the way that she has woven her heart into so many of us. She is a voice for those who do not have voices.

Jeni Britton Bauer • Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

Sara Abou Rashed is one of the most powerful voices in America right now. Her story—coming to America from Syria, teaching herself English by translating every word of The Odyssey, and becoming such an accomplished poet and storyteller before graduating high school—is one that every American can either relate to or should hear.

In the show, she asks: What does it really mean to be home? She helped me understand that I never had to question it. Even though I moved around a lot as a kid, I always knew my home, always found a place of acceptance. It’s a question so many of us have never had to think about profoundly as Sarah, her family, and so many other seeking refuge in America. 

Abou Rashed will present A Map of Myself again November 7 and 10, both at 2 p.m. at the Columbus Museum of Art. For info and tickets, visit mapofmyself.com. For more about her and her work, visit sarathepoet.com.

By  / (614) Magazine November 2018

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Govt & Politics

Hate group discussion gives historical context to policing

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Current CPD screening process explained

Columbus City Councilmember and Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee Shayla Favor held an informative and at times eye-opening public hearing regarding the expansion of hate group affiliation background checks. 

Although no legislation was announced during the discussion, the point of the meeting was to have educational and collaborative conversations with experts in the field of systematic racism, psychology, and policing. Favor did mention that legislation defining more strict background checks for police officers potentially in hate groups or possibly affiliating with those groups would be drafted by the end of the month.

At the time of publication, Columbus City Council couldn’t say if a Columbus police officer was affiliated with a hate group.

Two-plus hours of presentations held by those representing education (Dr. Judson L. Jefferies, an OSU professor in the Department of African American and African Studies), civil service (Amy DeLong, executive director of the Civil Service Commission), and police (Richard Blunt II, Safety Manager of the Background Investigations segment of the CPD) preceded public testimony.

During the discussion, bits of historical facts and information were inserted giving a more robust understanding to the context of the topic. For example, there are 1,000 to 1,100 hate groups in the United States that we’re able to identify, according to Jefferies. Jefferies also pointed out that there is less concern about the number of members, and more concern about the number of supporters. 

He also mentioned that in the 1960s, police would post ads to recruit Southern-minded people to become police officers in Chicago and Los Angeles. Jefferies did acknowledge that being a police officer is the hardest job of any street bureaucrat because they see the worst of the human condition.

The current screening process of the CPD, as it pertains to hate group affiliation, was presented by Blunt. This is what it looks like::

  • Personal History Statement (PSH)—Undetected Acts
    • At any time in your life have you ever committed a hate crime?
    • Are you now, or have you ever been a member or associate of a criminal enterprise, street gang, or any group that advocates violence against individuals because of their race, religion, political affiliation, ethnic origin, nationality, gender, sexual preference, or disability?
    • Has any member of your family ever been a member of, or associated with any, street gang or organized criminal enterprise such as outlaw motorcycle groups, prison gangs, or tagging crews?
    • Do you have, or have you ever had, a tattoo signifying membership in, or affiliation with, a criminal enterprise, street gang, or any group that advocates violence against individuals because of their race, religion, political affiliation, ethnic origin, nationality, or gender.
  • Tattoo Policy 
    • Shall have no visible tattoos on the head, neck, or hands 
    • Shall have no tattoos that depict obscene, gang-related, extremist or otherwise offensive images, which may bring the Division into disrepute 
    • Visible and exposed tattoos are photographed
  • Polygraph Examination
    • Taken to an ID UNIT where they are fingerprinted and taken photographs of their visible and exposed tattoos
    • Pre-interview to meet with background investigator and go over PSH with candidate one more time
    • Taken to polygraph unit where they answer over 100 questions before being hooked up to a polygraph, some being:
      • To your knowledge, have you, your spouse, significant other, any member of your family, or close friends ever been associated with any subversive, radical, or terrorist organization, such as hate groups or gangs?
      • Have you ever posted offensive, derogatory, or racist material to social media?
    • Right before the polygraph, the candidate is given four documents called mind maps, which include falsifying information, illegal substance use, sex offenses, serious crimes (hate crimes, racially-motivated crimes, gang membership, terrorist sympathizer), and to tell the interviewee if anything comes to mind that the candidate hasn’t already discussed.
    • Once hooked up to the polygraph, they will be asked if they are concealing any of those crimes, and will come up with one of three results:
      • Deception indicated
      • No deception indicated
      • Inconclusive

With that being known, there are definitely improvements to be made in how the CPD does intensive background checks when it comes to hate group affiliation. By the end of July, the Columbus City Council hopes to have legislation drafted on hate-group screening.

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Govt & Politics

Ginther names two independent entities for administrative and criminal review of CPD

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Mayor Andrew J. Ginther addressed masked members of the media at the Michael B. Coleman Government Center on Wednesday. In the mayor’s address, Ginther gave an update on who would be heading the investigations into police response to protests. 

“I challenge the FOP in joining the community in demanding change and reform,” Ginther said during the press conference.

Ned Pettus, Director of Public Safety, introduced Ginther before he announced the two independent entities charged with completing an administrative and criminal review of the Columbus Division of Police.

The law firm BakerHostetler is being brought in to review cases that require administrative action outside of police policy and are open for discipline with the CPD. So far 40 incidents have been identified for referral to the law firm.

A professional investigator, also a retired FBI agent, will be brought in to review 16 incidents that may result in criminal charges. The name of the professional investigator has not yet been disclosed.

Although Ginther mentioned that the images of the use of pepper spray by the CPD “don’t live up to community or (his) standards,” he did support the continued use of it being dispersed amongst peaceful protestors who were impeding traffic. Ginther did bring up that the city has encouraged peaceful protestors to stay on sidewalks.

Ginther also announced the workgroup that would help establish the future civilian review board, which is slated  for creation by the end of the year Those city officials include:

·        Jasmine Ayres, community organizer, People's Justice Project

·        Fred Benton, attorney

·        Bo Chilton, President and CEO, Impact Community Action

·        Dr. Lewis Dodley, IMPACT Community Action

·        Stephanie Hightower, President and CEO of Columbus Urban League

·        Pastor Frederick LaMarr, President, Baptist Pastors Conference

·        Kent Markus, General/Bar Counsel, Columbus Bar Association

·        Jonathan McCombs, Dean of College of Health and Public Administration, Franklin University

·        Ismail Mohammad, attorney, Ismail Law Office

·        Densil R. Porteous, Chair, Create Columbus

·        Aslyne Rodriguez, Director of Government Affairs, COTA

·        Janay Stevens, President, John Mercer Langston Bar Association, Associate, Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP

·        Kyle Strickland, Senior Legal Analyst, Kirwin Institute

·        Erin Synk, Director of Government Relations, LNE Group

·        Nana Watson, President, NAACP Columbus

·        Anthony Wilson, Vice President National Organization of Black Law Enforcement - Columbus Chapter

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Govt & Politics

Elizabeth Brown hosts virtual public hearing on demilitarization of police

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President Pro Tempore and Finance Committee Chair Elizabeth Brown and several other Columbus City Council members held a virtual finance committee public hearing Tuesday afternoon that lasted long into the evening. The hearing was held to “discuss equipment purchased for and allowed to be purchased for by the police department.”

“I believe that in this country...we strive to have community-based safety forces,” Brown said during the hearing. “I believe for the protection of our residents, for that to exist, there should be a covenant between police and people that we are on the same side.”

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order limiting the amount of military-grade gear going to police departments. In that executive order, there were two lists of military-grade weapons: prohibited and controlled.

In 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded that executive order, effectively opening the door to the militarization of police departments across the country.

Deputy Chief Michael Woods thoroughly listed the use of certain military-style equipment, not limited to weapons, and physical purchases by the Columbus Division of Police. Deputy Woods outlined the equipment that the CPD doesn’t possess as well.

Some of the prohibited items discussed included: 

  • Trekked armored vehicles – none owned by CPD
  • Weaponized aircraft vessels /vehicles of any kind – none owned by CPD
  • Firearms and ammunition of 50 caliber or higher – none owned by CPD
  • Grenade launchers – none, but do use gas guns ($936 each)
  • Camouflage uniforms – CPD wears a woodland pattern ($316/uniform)

Some of the controlled items discussed included:

  • Helicopters – CPD ranks higher in helicopter fleet (six helicopters)
  • Riot shields and batons – haven’t purchased new ones in 15 years ($200 each)
  • Tasers
  • M16 military rifles and gas guns
  • Armored vehicles

There are arguments to be made on both sides when it comes to using military-grade equipment. For example, the roar of helicopters may incite fear in communities, but they provide valuable community resources in locating missing persons or during natural disasters. And if their use is valid, is six excessive and even wasteful?

Columbus residents were encouraged to submit written testimony to Brown’s office and participate in the virtual press conference. Columbus City Council received an outpouring of community engagement, including 906 written comments and 69 speaker testimonies. Many spoke in length about the unprovoked and violent force used by the police since the protests started at the end of May.

“The overwhelming public engagement we received is more evidence of the urgent need to think differently about how we keep every resident safe in our city. I’m grateful to the nearly 1,000 people who lent their voices. I also appreciate (the) Division of Police personnel for providing information to Council and residents — they answered some important questions, and we will continue to ask more questions. Creating public policy is not just putting words on paper; it’s about making a difference in people’s lives. We are all better prepared for that job by having given residents the mic last night.”

President Pro Tempore and Finance Committee Chair Elizabeth Brown said in a statement to (614)


Those who spoke included the Department of Finance Director Joe Lombardi, Public Safety and Veterans’ Affairs Chair Mitchell J. Brown, Director of Public Safety Ned Pettus, and several other council members.

Before the list of prohibited and controlled equipment was outlined by Woods, Lombardi went through the process that the city goes through when setting a specific budget. Here is the procedure for 2021:

  • The budget process begins in June, and the Department of Finance puts together target budgets; target budgets are based on estimates of available resources from following fiscal year
  • A series of meetings will take place between August and October
  • Budget is adopted in February

(614) reached out to the CPD for comment after the press conference and had not received a response at the time of publishing.

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