Iraqi-Minnesotan stories coming to life at the Guthrie

- A chilling escape from the desert of death.

Three years ago, 9-year-old Bahaa Al Shaikhli said a hurried and hectic goodbye to Iraq.  The threat of ISIS growing at her doorstep, Bahaa and her family fled their beloved home searching for safety and stability.  Thousands of miles, and far too many strangers later, a new home slowly materializes in the chilly confines of the Twin Cities.  A life of uncertainty behind her, Bahaa faces new challenges head on - a new language, a trying culture, and more recently the bright lights of the Guthrie Theater.

“I didn’t know there would be a play or anything,” Al Shaikhli said. “I figured I’d give it a shot.’”

Bahaa is just one member of the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, or IARP - a group currently thrusting themselves into the spotlight… that spotlight much more than a simple expression.  Weaving together the true stories of 12 Iraqi-Minnesotan refugees and immigrants, Birds Sing Differently Here takes the stage inside the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio for one weekend only - the intimate black box theater a fitting space for a piece so uniquely personal.

“A lot of people have different ideas about Iraq,” Al Shaikhli said.  “If I was to see these people in the street I wouldn’t know anything about them.  I want people to know we’re peaceful, not harmful.“

Like many of their journeys, this piece has been a toil of love and dedication.  Last spring the group first came together to tell their stories, followed by a workshop in late summer, and now, a fully realized production with professional actors and many of the original storytellers taking to the stage. Local theater artist Dylan Fresco helped write and shape the show into what it is today.

“These people are taking massive risks. Stepping up on stage as an actor is a risk, but to step up on stage with skills and a language you’ve maybe only recently developed, and not just sharing any story, but one you’re deeply connected to, is a massive risk,” Fresco said.

The piece, which covers decades of Iraqi strife and upheaval, is told in both English and Arabic.  A fledgling actor, Ali Alshammaa is in his seventies and still learning English - Ali’s dream of coming to America repeatedly denied as world events overwhelmed his most well-intentioned advances.

“My dream started before the Gulf War, but after the invasion no one was allowed to come to the U.S.,” Alshammaa said through a translator.  “I tried again for a VISA in 2001, but then September 11th.”

Finally making it to Minnesota in 2010, Alshammaa’s delayed arrival was bittersweet.

“My dream was to come and work, but i’m pretty old. So I couldn’t do my dream,” Alshammaa said.

All of these immigrants, young or old, have welcomed the chance of a Minnesota home, but not every Minnesotan wishes to put out the welcome mat.

Just days ago a St. Cloud city council member proposed a moratorium on refugee resettlement. Earlier this year Iraqis faced a controversial presidential travel ban. Hot heads and trying times, reminders of why this cast began their theatrical endeavor in the first place.

“Oftentimes it’s tricky to get to know someone from a different culture and see a full human,” Fresco said, “Yes, people are refugees, but they’re also full living humans as well.  I’m proud of the Guthrie for allowing us the opportunity to share stories on a human level.”

Birds Sing Differently Here will run for three performances, October 27 - 29 in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the Guthrie Box Office at 612-377-2224.

Abraham Swee is a multi-media producer at FOX 9 covering the arts across central Minnesota.  Send story ideas to


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