SALT LAKE CITY — Melissa Dalton-Bradford remembers sitting in a German courtroom in the winter of 2017 as if it were yesterday.
Inches away from Dalton-Bradford sat her friend, an Afghan woman in her 20s, whispering her harrowing ordeal as a refugee to a translator, who translated her words from Pashto to German for the judge overseeing the asylum hearing to understand.
The soft-spoken woman, with a veil covering her head and her cloth-slipper-clad feet crossed at her ankles, shook as she told her story in its entirety for the first time.
“She wasn’t shaking, I think, because she was afraid,” Dalton-Bradford explained, “but she was shaking because for so long she’d been carrying this story of abuse and her violation and hadn’t been able to tell it. … In her country, to tell that story would be certain death.”
The woman, who Dalton-Bradford chose not to name out of respect for her privacy, left her native Afghanistan fearing for her life. One day while walking to school, she was stopped by a half a dozen members of the Taliban. Angered by her educational aspirations — the Taliban vehemently forbids the education of women — and recognizing her as a the sister of a suspected American sympathizer, the men grabbed the woman, blindfolded her and threw her in the back of a vehicle. They drove her to a remote location — all she knows is it was lightless and made of cement — and tortured and raped her for days.
Eventually, the men drove her back to the location they had taken her from, leaving her to crawl home.
Fearing for her daughter’s safety, the woman’s mother kissed her goodbye and told her to flee immediately.
After thousands of miles of walking, the young woman eventually arrived in Germany as a refugee, where she became friends with Dalton-Bradford.
“That story says a lot because it's one of many, many stories just like that,” Dalton-Bradford said.
For Dalton-Bradford, an author and speaker based in Frankfurt, Germany, watching her young friend tell her story illustrated the importance of allowing refugees the chance to share their experiences. It is this simple mission — recording and sharing the stories of refugees — that drives Dalton-Bradford's nonprofit, Their Story is Our Story, which she founded with five other people from around the world.
“For me, this collecting of stories and listening to people’s stories is a way of sitting with them in their grief and recognizing them as fully worthy human beings,” Dalton-Bradford explained.
Dalton-Bradford and others will share some of these refugee stories and a few of their own experiences on Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Salt Lake City Public Library as part of "An Evening of Refugee Stories and Songs," based on TSOS’s recently released book "Let Me Tell You My Story" (Familius, 232 pages).
“Our hope is that as we tell individual (refugee) stories, people will be able to relate to one here or one there and kind of understand what’s going on as a whole a little bit better,” said Elizabeth Thayer, an Orem-based artist and one of the founders of TSOS.
When Thayer started hearing more and more about the refugee crisis in Europe, it got her thinking.
She had recently returned to the United States and had settled in Utah after living in Europe for a time with her family and wanted to help.
“What could I possibly do as a mother of kids in Orem, Utah?” Thayer remembers asking herself.
Thayer, who has a bachelor’s in illustration for Brigham Young University and studied illustration at Syracuse University and painting at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, had the idea to paint a portrait of a refugee to raise awareness. She knew a friend of hers, Tricia Leimer, volunteered at refugee camps in Germany and contacted Leimer to see what she thought of the idea.
Around the same time, Lindsay Silsby, a photographer based in the U.K., and her friend, Garrett Gibbons, a filmmaker based in Seattle, also had the idea to use their talents to raise awareness about refugees.
Through a number of coincidences that the group refers to as “divine choreography” and with a little help from social media, Thayer, Silsby and Gibbons joined forces with Leimer and her friend from her congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dalton-Bradford, to use their individual skills to form TSOS and tell refugee stories.
“We knew that if these people’s stories change our lives, that those stories would change other people’s lives,” Dalton-Bradford said.
With the help of an Indiegogo account, the group raised funds for their first trip to Germany and Greece to gather refugee stories. They thought they would find at least a few refugees interested in sharing their experiences but were surprised when hundreds of people lined up at the camps to talk with them.
“They stood in the sun, they waited cross-legged on the floor in tents, to be able to tell their story of why they fled, who they were, what their life had been like before,” Dalton-Bradford said “In other words, they wanted to be acknowledged as human beings. They wanted to sort of unload this trauma that they had had.“
More than a name
In a lot of ways, Twila Bird’s life is vastly different from the refugees she’s met during her work with TSOS.
But they also share similarities and it’s in celebrating both sides of that dichotomy that Bird has been able to form lasting friendships.
“We continue to keep in touch with them,” said Bird, TSOS’s chief editor who lives in Uintah, Weber County. “They’re our friends. We care about them.”
She often thinks about one of her friends, Rasheeda, a refugee from Afghanistan who fled to Germany with her extended family. As a woman in her 60s, Rasheeda’s journey was not an easy one.
“It required thousands of miles of walking up over mountain ranges, in conditions that were almost unbearable for even the most healthy people, but this grandmother had bad knees to start with and she felt going up over these mountain ranges she literally had to crawl part of the way or scoot on her bottom to get over the scheel rock,” Bird explained.
Yet, despite the difficulty of the journey, Rasheeda carried her Koran and prayer rug every step of the way.
“I’m not Muslim — I’m a Christian — but when (Rasheeda) and I met the first time, there was an immediate bond because we both have faith in God and we respect each other for the faith that we have,” Bird said. “It was her faith that carried her and it’s my faith that has carried me through the difficult trials in my life, and we both know that there’s power in that faith.”
Rasheeda’s story and many more are among those included in “Let Me Tell You My Story,” a book Bird said is intended to bring a face — or hundreds of faces — to the refugee crisis.
“We read about it in newspapers and it feels distant, but it is real for these people,” she said.
Thayer acknowledged that many — including herself before she started her work with TSOS — have misconceptions about the world’s ever-growing refugee population, misconceptions that range from assuming refugees are just tired of their country; to thinking they hate Americans; to believing they are terrorists; to thinking they have a choice whether or not to stay.
“Our hope is that by telling individual stories, people will realize … (refugees are) just like you and me,” Thayer said. “They had homes, they went to school, they had full-time jobs, they had families, support networks, and it just got to the point where they had to leave and most of them did not want to leave but their lives were in danger and their families were in danger.”
More stories to tell
The TSOS team, all of whom are unpaid volunteers, hopes the book launch event at the Salt Lake City Library is just the start of bringing the group’s mission to the United States. They will begin gathering refugee stories from the United States — and other parts of the world — in the coming weeks and months.
According to Margo Watson, TSOS’s Utah-based publicist and the event’s organizer, the whole purpose of Thursday’s "An Evening of Refugee Stories and Songs" is to show people what TSOS is all about.
“All of us have burdens. All of us have families, children, goals, dreams, and this evening is about trying to break the barriers and let people know that those barriers don’t need to be there,” she explained.
Bradford-Dalton will be traveling to Utah to emcee and speak at the event, which Watson said will also include readings from the book, ethnic dancers and songs and a display of Thayer’s artwork. Representatives from the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services will also be at the event to provide insight into how attendees can help provide hands-on service to local refugees — an important element to the event, as Bradford-Dalton points out, because it is through the marriage of providing for both the physical needs of refugees and the emotional needs that healing happens.1 comment on this story
“After people are fed and clothed they have to integrate into a new home,” she said. “Stories give us a bridge where we make a human connection, and that’s what these people need. They need to realize that even though inhumane things have happened to them outside of their control, they are still human.”
If you go …
What: "An Evening of Refugee Stories and Songs," based on the book "Let Me Tell You My Story"
When: Thursday, Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South
How much: Free