By: Avery Trufelman
I had a drink and nibbled on a cookie, but I couldn’t enjoy myself—not until the keynote speech was over.
It was October 16 and there were more than 280 people filing into SOMArts gallery in downtown San Francisco. This was GenR’s Force for Change event, where there was an outdoor bar with a DJ and a huge gallery space full of tables of cookies and kabobs from Afghanistan, salads from Myanmar, and sweets from Syria. In a black box room off to the side of the gallery, there were huge portraits of refugees girls, ages 8 through 11, embodying what they want to be when they grow up. The girls, who live all around the Bay Area, were posing as doctors, lawyers, and rock stars. These photographs were taken as part of an empowerment workshop called The Vision Project, formed in collaboration with the IRC. Guests milled around observing, eating, enjoying themselves, and then they were gathered in front of a stage in the main gallery. This was where the speech was going to take place.
Months ago, staff at the IRC’s office in Oakland introduced me to a refugee client of theirs, an artist named Khalid Eid. I was to help Khalid write down his story, which he would tell on stage with his photographs. The images captured the phases of his life as he moved from Damascus to Istanbul to Oakland.
In the weeks leading up to the event, Khalid and I met to talk, listen, look at photographs, and write together. The more and more his tale unfurled, the more our friendship developed. It was such a deeply intimate process to develop his speech and it suddenly seemed daunting that he would read it in front of other people.
He and I were both nervous. We were both sweating on the night of the event as we read the speech back and forth to each other before he got on stage and made last-minute changes. I was going to run Khalid’s slides while he spoke, which meant I was to stay in the south booth. It was behind the stage, concealed by a door. Being in the booth meant that I couldn’t see Khalid, but I could hear the crowd hush when he began. I felt their silence ease when he broke the tension with a joke. I heard gasps when I would click to reveal another one of his beautiful photographs. I peeked through the crack in the door to watch the faces in the crowd. This loving Bay Area community had gathered on this night and were all rapt by Khalid’s forceful presence. And then, when he was finished speaking, they erupted into thunderous applause.
The incredible Force for Change event brought in more than $43,000 for the IRC. It was a successful evening thanks to the generosity of the attendees, the team of volunteers and organizers who gave their time and energy, the vendors who donated foods and drinks, the girls from The Vision Project who shared their dreams, Khalid, and the IRC who brought us all together. It certainly won’t be the last project I work on with the IRC, nor my last collaboration with my new, dear friend, Khalid.