People to Watch: Sara Abou Rashed

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Ask Sara Abou Rashed where she's from and she's probably going to tell you where she's from.

No, that's not a typo. It's a distinction that Rashed makes, with infectious laughter, during a conversation at a Clintonville cafe. Identity, place, home — these are things that require more than a simple one-word answer.

“Most of the time, people don't want to hear the long story,” said Rashed, a 19-year-old Centennial High School graduate who recently completed her first year at Denison University, her laughter subsiding. “I feel like atypical-looking Americans are more likely to be asked. You just hope it can be the start of a conversation.”

Rashed's grandparents were born in Palestine and were among those who chose to flee the country in 1948 as a result of war and violence. Their refugee camp in Syria morphed, over years, into a full-fledged city (Yarmouk), but they continued to consider themselves Palestinian — as did the Syrian government.

Rashed's mother traveled to the United States in 1996, gaining citizenship in 2002, but eventually returning to Syria, where Sara was born. Mother and daughter then moved to Columbus in 2013, both U.S. citizens but living in a “foreign” country where Sara, about to start her freshman year of high school, did not speak the language.

“There were some kids in high school who asked, ‘Why do you wear [a scarf]?' or, ‘Why don't you go back?' but mostly it's the daily reminders of not belonging,” said Rashed, who described this as “not being American enough.”

A lifelong poet, Rashed began addressing issues of place and identity in Arabic before relocating to the U.S. Once she learned English (accomplished, in part, by translating the words to Homer'sOdyssey, one of her first reading assignments at Centennial), her poetry shifted languages, eventually coming to the attention of Larry Smith, founder of the Six Word Project, who's been a staunch advocate ever since.

Rashed has shared poetry and told her story at TEDx events and other conferences in places including New Orleans, Cincinnati, New York City and in Boston, at Harvard University's Public Policy and Leadership Conference. She will speak in September in Athens, Greece, at the Athens Democracy Forum.

“I've been lucky to have people help and support me, people rooting for me,” she said. “Things like that remind me that I have a purpose of being here. Sometimes my grandmother would say things like, ‘You're always busy and stressed doing poetry things.' I tell her this is the one thing that really brings me joy. It's not a burden.”

Not that Rashed doesn't carry burdens. As one of only two women at Denison who wears a scarf, she feels “a weight of representation,” Rashed said. And the poet's mother said she had to talk her into staying at school more than once during her first year.

“Times would get really hard and I had trouble finding friends, because you want people to see you past first looks, past that first, ‘I know you're different,' to seeing we care about the same things,” Rashed said. “That doesn't happen easily. But maybe now next year or a year after, a girl would ask and they would say, ‘Yes, there are girls at Denison who wear the head scarf,' and she would feel OK. It's like I heard [Sen.] Kamala Harris say, ‘I'm going to be the first in many places, but my job is not to be the last.'”

“I don't think I ever sat down and decided I wanted to be [an activist], but I do think that just being present and visible in places is an act of activism,” Rashed continued, adding that, “An artist is always an activist.”

That's a still-very-abridged version of the “long story.” For a longer version, and one that tackles a number of other related topics, including language, immigration and more, mark your calendars for Oct. 19-20 at the Lincoln Theatre, or Nov. 7 and 14 at the Columbus Museum of Art, where Rashed will perform her new one-woman play, “A Map of Myself.”

“I'm interested in the relationship between people and places,” Rashed said. “There are many interesting and complex issues of nationality, of immigration, of displacement that inspired the show.”

Though her presentations regularly include original poetry, “A Map of Myself” marks Rashed's first formal telling of her story in a theatrical setting.

“To the audience watching me struggle with different identities, this show will be validation that you can struggle and you can be complex and you never have to answer questions like, ‘Who are you?' or, ‘Where are you from?' with one word,” she said. “Sometimes we have to just claim our own map and say we're that large and we don't fit in a short answer, and to accept and celebrate it instead of apologizing for telling you the long story.”

Sara Abou Rashed

Age: 19

Occupation: Student/Poet

Hometown: Haifa, Palestine (lived in Damascus, Syria)

Organizations: Denison University, Columbus Makes Art

Who do you look up to? In life, my mother, Razan Oueis; in the art world, storyteller Mike Birbiglia, poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Lisa Suhair Majaj, and singer Omar Offendum

Instagram: @sara_xo_poet

Twitter: @SaraAbouRashedx