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Refugee Stories Set in Iowa Inspire Food Insecurity Play

Actors huddle around microphones as foley artists create sound effects with musicians. They are performing a scene about a teenager running away from gunfire in Burundi. This is Pang!, a three-act play presented as radio theater on a stage at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in this central African country during a civil war that started in the 1990s. Many Burundi refugees resettled in Cedar Rapids, and their journey to Iowa is the basis for the second act of the play.  It's written by Los Angeles author, Dan Froot, to illustrate how food insecurity affects different families by setting each act in a separate city. Froot says food insecurity is different than hunger.

"You maybe be having three meals a day, but they may be empty calories," says Froot.  "Sometimes families who are food insecure may not realize they're food insecure.  It's something that makes it difficult to function at their best in school, at work, and in civic life."

Froot selected Iowa because of his long time partnership with Legion Arts, a nonprofit presenter of modern art in Cedar Rapids.  Froot focused on the city's many refugees for part of the story.  In the play the character "Oscar" is based the experiences of Theo Bampamirubusa. 

He was placed in Cedar Rapids in 2006 with his wife and child.  Ninety days after arriving, his government assistance ended. Bampamirubusa needed to get work, but knew very little English.

"My caseworker, she work hard to make sure I have a job," he says.  "I get a job. I was a dish washer. I work in that place for three month.  After that, the job was gone."

Bampamirubusa was eventually able to get a steady job as an assembly line worker at Amana.  He's been there now for nine years.  He says he was able to get his bearings with help from the Catherine McAuley Center.  Education program manager at the center, Anne Duggar, helps refugees learn English and understand the cultural norms.

"Even as people get here with the help that they're given, often it can turn into a poverty stricken situation," says Duggar.  "Certainly if the language barrier is there, it becomes really difficult to get good jobs.  To even understand something as basic as bus routes.  We have this conversation all the time with students: Let's go over the bus route that you need to get to your job.  And even with the jobs that they get, it's often not enough money."

This makes the refugee population susceptible to food insecurity.  Bampamirubusa and his wife both have full time jobs, but had a hard time making ends meet.  They are now involved with a community garden growing an acre of vegetables this summer with the help of Feed Iowa First.  The produce is distributed to pantries and families who are trying to save money on their food budget.

All of these situations are portrayed in the stage production.  Playwright Dan Froot says he is presenting these stories in the style of classic radio theater because it makes audience members use their imagination.

"That's an empathic act," says Froot. "You're putting yourself between the ears of the people whose story you're hearing in these families' places and hear, feel, see what it's like from that perspective."

Pang! debuts Friday night in Cedar Rapids at the CSPS Hall. Soon it will move on to the cities where the other stories are set. Act 1 is about a Los Angeles family going through home foreclosure and Act 3 takes place in a Miami neighborhood with gun violence.

John Pemble is a reporter for IPR