Powerful Poet: Sara Abou Rashed's International Journey

Peter Tonguette
Sara Abou Rashed

In her 2016 TEDx Talk, Columbus poet Sara Abou Rashed speaks of diving into an ocean as a metaphor for diving into life. Six years ago, Rashed literally moved across an ocean—a major life change that inspires much of her acclaimed work.

In 2013, Rashed relocated from Damascus, Syria, to Columbus with her mother, who wanted to escape the upheaval and danger of Syria's Civil War.

For then-13-year-old Rashed, the culture shock of leaving her native country was experienced in dozens of small ways. For example, she remembers attending a birthday party at which she was offered a piece of cake. “In Arabic culture, you never say ‘yes' on a first time,” says Rashed, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Denison University who has won widespread recognition for her poetry and her one-woman show, “A Map of Myself.”

“I said ‘no,' hoping she'd ask me again,” Rashed continues. “She never did, and so, I'm there as a 13-year-old for two, three hours and I'm like, ‘I did not eat any cake here because I said no on the first time!' ”

Even before the move, Rashed says she had long felt like a “temporary guest”—a consequence of her family's complex heritage. In the early 1920s, her Jewish maternal great-grandmother emigrated from Russia to Palestine, where she married a Muslim man; in 1948, the couple fled to a refugee camp in Syria. What began as temporary lodging became permanent. “Soon enough, those Palestinians realized there is no going back,” Rashed says. “I actually was born in one of those refugee camps. … It's called Al Yarmouk Camp, but after a few years, those camps stopped being camps and became actual cities.”

Rashed, whose mother was a professor at Damascus University, grew up with an appreciation for the written word. “My grandmother was my first teacher of poetry,” she says. “She would recite Arabic poetry to me, and I wrote my first poem at the age of 8.”

When conditions in Syria necessitated a move, Rashed's mother, Razan Oueis, chose to come to Columbus, which her older brother, Sam, had called home since the early 1980s. Oueis had been a U.S. citizen since 1999. “I used to come to America, and to Columbus exactly, for visiting, for just traveling in the summer,” says Oueis, who now teaches at Columbus State Community College. “But I didn't think that I would stay for a long time.”

Rashed admires her mother's decisive thinking—in deciding that “the future is more important than the past,” she says—but the adjustment was at times overwhelming, even though she had been a U.S. citizen since age 5. After all, the teenager would soon be a freshman in a U.S. high school but had only a passing familiarity with English.

Early on, Rashed felt adrift in English and disconnected from Arabic. “For a few months, I did not write anything,” she says. In time, though, she not only learned the language, but came to master it. “I believe that having been a writer in Syria helped me learn English faster,” Rashed says. “I'm one of those people who believes that language is intuition and that it's a feeling, and the alphabet really is just a tool.”

Rashed entered Centennial High School, where she struggled to adjust to everything from the way classes changed during the school day (in Syria, the teachers come and go in a single classroom) to the bad language sometimes used by her peers. “I want to stay true to myself,” she says. “At the same time, having been here for a little while, it means that I'm becoming more familiar with American norms.”

She found her footing when she began to write poetry at school; her works often explore matters of identity. English teacher Lynn Taylor took note after a colleague shared a piece of Rashed's writing that was a reinterpretation of Homer's “The Odyssey,” a book that was assigned reading Rashed's freshman year. “She just immediately struck me as having a poetic voice,” Taylor says. “And she then started to come to the writers' workshop regularly her sophomore year.”

Rashed soon won the Ohio Poetry Association's high school contest and became a two-time honoree in the Columbus City Schools District Poetry Slam. And then, her audience expanded. “Something happened where the school and society—the Columbus community itself—just merged,” says Rashed, who has recited her works—including her powerful “I Am America”—locally and nationwide. Her one-woman show uses poetry, storytelling and acting to communicate her journey. “It's just a way of me exploring myself and telling everyone else that it's OK to be too many things at once,” she says.

Despite recognition and success, there still are times when it's not all smooth sailing. Rashed's father, an architect in Syria, died four years ago (her parents divorced before she was 2) and the subject, understandably, remains painful. Upon entering Denison, where she is studying creative writing and international studies, she initially felt out of place. “I soon after realized that I would be one of only two girls wearing the headscarf out of over 2,000 students,” says Rashed. But this year, she decided to embrace standing out from the crowd.

“I told myself, ‘If you're going to be one of the only people to stand out, you might as well make it worth it.' ”

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