Humanizing a growing population

Kim Schultz talks with children during a trip to Syria in 2009. The Winona State graduate has written a book about her experience in the Middle East, including falling in love with a refugee from Iraq.

Kim Schultz went to the Middle East in 2009 to meet with Iraqi refugees and to spin their stories into a play she would bring to the United States.

The play turned out to be a love story detailing her relationship with Omar, a refugee and one of her interview subjects, including their years-long struggle to stay together even as they lived half a world apart. Now Schultz, a Winona State University graduate, is releasing a memoir about her international romance, “Three Days in Damascus,” which comes out Friday.

“My life was forever changed,” said Schultz, a writer, actress and refugee rights advocate who now lives in Chicago. “My life was changed because I fell in love, but having the experience of meeting with refugees, having them share intimate stories with me — it changed me, too.”

Schultz and Omar, who is now living in Canada, have since gone their separate ways. But she said she hopes her book will change the way people, especially here, think about refugees and the United States’ role in finding them places to settle.

Schultz said her time in Winona helped give her the confidence to pursue her creative interests and to write her book, published by Palewell Press, and that she would like to do some readings locally this winter.

“I still consider Winona to be a second home — the bluffs, the water,” said Schultz, who added that a turning point in her life came when she was a freshman at Winona State, when she earned a leading role in the university production of “Eleemosynary,” directed by then-professor Vivian Fusillo.

“That was my first play,” she said. “Vivian taught me who I wanted to be as an artist and as an actor.”

Fusillo, who retired in 2015, said she formed an almost immediate bond with Schultz. They still exchange letters and visit each other 25 years later. Any day now, Fusillo is expecting to receive a copy of the memoir in the mail, she said.

“She’s always been so full of energy,” Fusillo said of Schultz. “Just suggest an idea, and she carries it through. She never knows what she’s going to do next, and we don’t, either.”

Schultz’s trip to the Middle East was funded by Intersections International, and she said the relationships she built during that month reshaped her beliefs about the global refugee crisis. There are 65 million refugees worldwide, and it’s clear to Schultz, she said, that a vast majority are just like everyone else.

“They want to live their lives and raise their families,” she said. “We think they’re somebody else, that they’re terrorists and this and that.”

“I had to Google the refugee crisis when I went over there, but now I can’t stop advocating for these people.”

Schultz said she would like to see the United States increase the number of refugees the country is willing to take in, a controversial discussion both amid the looming presidential election, as well as recent high-profile events.

“If you’re lucky enough to sit with these families, to drink their tea and share a meal with them, you’ll find like I did they’re humans like us who want the same things we do,” Schultz said. “I hope this book pivots the conversation.”

“They want to live their lives and raise their families. We think they’re somebody else, that they’re terrorists and this and that.” — Kim Schultz, WSU grad who wrote memoir on refugees

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