Starring as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol, actor Kim Schultz sheds light on the many injustices of the world, urging Scrooge to change his ways. Off stage, Schultz has found a similar calling, becoming an advocate for refugees of international crises. After volunteering in the Middle East, Schultz recently released Three Days in Damascus, a memoir that recounts her time working with refugee relief efforts and the surprising romance that blossomed between her and an Iraqi refugee named Omar. Schultz will participate in a free book signing and reading at the Goodman’s Alice Rapoport Center for Education and Engagement on December 19 at 6pm. Ahead of the event, Schultz spoke with OnStage Editor Michael Mellini about her new book.
Michael Mellini: How did you first get involved with Iraqi refugee efforts?
Kim Schultz: I had never done any refugee advocacy before, so this experience was my first. I worked with an organization called Intersections International that commissioned me to write a play. They brought eight artists of different disciplines, I was the writer, to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria (before the civil war had broken out) in 2009 to meet with Iraqi refugees to shed light on the crisis. This was before ISIS, before Syria fell apart, all that. At that time, that refugee crisis, and even the current one, was not getting the attention it deserved. While there I met with hundreds of refugees, one in particular, Omar, who I fell in love with, and that was the story that developed. I wrote the play, No Place Called Home, and performed it in New York, at the Kennedy Center and toured with it from 2010 through 2013. I kept thinking, “Well, this feels like a book too,” so in 2012 I started writing again.
MM: What was your time like visiting the refugees? How do you prepare yourself for such an intense experience?
KS: I don’t think anything can ever really prepare you for witnessing trauma and interacting with people who have been through so much. I was completely taken aback and really wrecked for a long time. It was traumatizing to hear these stories, let alone comprehend these people lived through them. For social workers, or people who consistently work in this field, there must be some part of your brain or heart you have to turn off because I don’t know how people do this every day. I sobbed all the time. Part of that is because I’m an artist and my job is to open my heart to other people and their experiences. I needed to experience things with them in order to act them out on stage. It’s horrible to say, but I would hear a story and say, “Oh, that’s going in my play,” but I knew these were such vital and troubling stories. I was listening with an artist’s ear, yet still a human being listening to the stories of other humans. It’s all so fresh now after the election. We have these horrific stories that aren’t being heard and these people are being demonized when they are in fact the ones suffering. It’s more important now than ever that stories like these get told and refugees are humanized, which in turn reminds of us our own humanity. That’s my goal for the book, to remind readers of our own humanity.
MM: That’s very much one of the key messages in A Christmas Carol as well.
KS: Yes, that’s certainly what my character, the Ghost of Christmas Present, speaks to: the generosity of spirit, soul and taking care of your fellow man. She asks Scrooge, “Why is your worth higher than someone else’s worth?” Those words really ring true this year. A Christmas Carol brings out the best in us and the way it’s directed is so in sync with what’s happening in the world right now; it’s not just a Dickensian story. The words in the story are the words people need to hear right now. The ghost warns about ignorance and how ignorance is our doom. I can’t even say those words without tearing up. It’s a joy and honor to be in this production and speak those words to an audience each night.
MM: Yet for all the horrors addressed in your book, it is still very much a love story.
KS: I met Omar at the end of the trip when I was pretty distraught. He was too. He fled Baghdad and been living in Damascus for three years. He ended up spending another four years there as our refugee vetting system is intensely thorough and slow, contrary to popular belief. We met and [the chemistry] was kind of immediate. He is an artist, so the next day I went to see his paintings and we ended up spending the next three days together. We continued to maintain an on-again off-again relationship internationally. I tried to get to Syria a few times to see him again, but was thwarted by the civil war. We tried to get him to the U.S. in every way, shape and form.
MM: What else do you hope readers take from the book?
KS: I hope they’re moved to listen and to act. That’s cliché, but the biggest compliment I received after performing the stage show was when people would come up, visibly mad, and say, “I didn’t know this was happening. What can I do?” I hope it creates a fire in people because awareness is the first step toward progress. There is so much false information about what refugees want and look like; all the crazy stuff that gets thrown out there is nowhere near the truth. These are people who want the same things we do. They want to live a safe life, have their kids educated, be able to put food on the table. The Iraqis weren’t even worried about themselves, they were just focused on their kids. They would say, “Forget me. I’m done. I’ll die. Just take my kids and let them get an education and survive.” I would love for my book to help people realize we are all connected, especially with the current rhetoric around refugees, and to deepen and bring truth to that conversation.
To learn more about Three Days in Damascus. visit 3DaysinDamascus.com.