Central New York has a large refugee community, and often they don’t get a chance to share their full story. Nineteen students are participating in the Narratio Fellowship this year, a storytelling program to help refugee youth express themselves through art. Some students resettled in Central New York recently. Others don’t remember a time before they came to America.

This year, each student is using photography or poetry. Over the summer, there was a four-week intensive where they learned about storytelling. They had mentors from National Geographic and Syracuse University helping. It gives each student a chance to tell a story that feels authentic and one that is well-rounded.

“Often times, when refugee or resettled youth are asked to tell their stories, there’s a particularly kind of expectation of what kind of story they’re going to have based on their own experiences,” said Brice Nordquist, the cofounder of the Narratio Fellowship and a Syracuse University professor. “There’s expectations around displacement and tragedy and pain, and working with refugee youth over time them you come to understand the complex experiences, the complex history they’ve had, just like anybody else has had.”

High school student Alaa Laila is using photography to help tell her story. She moved to Syracuse from Syria about five years ago. She said there are a lot of expectations as a refugee, especially as a woman who wears a hijab, so her project involves balancing all sides of her history and future.

“Sometimes I used to feel disappointed and feel hurt when I used to be called a refugee, but I’m not only a refugee,” said Laila. “There’s more sides to me. And I’m not gonna let other people label me. I’m not just a refugee. It is part of what makes me me, but that’s not my whole story. It’s my time as a refugee to tell my story: what does it mean to be Alaa, not just a refugee or a Syrian.”

The Narratio Fellowship has helped Laila realize there is a world beyond the screen, she said. Through photography, she’s told her story. Other students this year are telling stories through poetry.

The fellows travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They also receive academic counseling, so they are prepared to continue their education after high school, and they learn what options are out there.

The program is working to expand across the country. The primary focus is still to help refugee youth in Central New York.