When the International Institute contacted Villa Maria College’s Digital Media and Communication Professor Michelle Kearns to ask whether there was a student who may be interested in helping Ayla Abiad, a Syrian native, tell her story, Kearns knew exactly who to recommend.
That was LaCherie Reid, a second-semester sophomore who was in the midst of a Narrative Arc class, which teaches students how to tell and produce swift stories in both print and digital media. Throughout this class, students learn to create compelling stories by understanding and simplifying the four-point narrative arc that helps writers and media producers shape material into something viewers and readers can’t help but finish. In the end, the class requires each student to produce a short, non-fiction video based on real life interviews. LaCherie is a stellar student, she just needed the perfect story to tell.
According to Kearns, Reid had expressed an interest a starting a television interview show with a live audience. She also possesses advanced editing skills. “I figured the interview with Abiad would help Reid refine her interests,” said Kearns. “And, as an instructor, it’s my job to help students use digital media communication tools to develop their interests.”
Reid jumped at the chance to take on the project.
“When I first heard about the opportunity to do this project I was pretty excited,” she said. “To be able to talk to somebody from Syria was pretty exciting to me. I was really curious about what [Ayla] wanted people to know. How did she deal with the different opinions and judgments? What was Syria like? All I knew is what I’ve seen [on the news]. What is it that we don’t know about Syria? I wanted to know the truth.”
Reid, 25, thought of her own experiences as a young woman starting a career and wondered what it felt like for Abiad to be in a minority in the United States.
“I grew up in a predominately white area,” said Reid, who is African-American. “I’m American. I have been in situations where I have just felt so on the outside, just because of the difference in culture. I can only imagine what an outsider feels like in an outsider’s country.”
As Reid and Abiad talked in an office in the International Institute’s converted Delaware Avenue mansion, Abiad’s story of ambition and family resonated with Reid. It settled some of her curiosity about feeling like an outsider. After years of work and life in the U.S., Abiad seemed at home. Reid could relate.
The pursuit of dreams, said Reid, was the common ground.
“The more I work, the more secure I feel. I felt like [Ayla] and I can relate in that way,” she said. Reid is currently employed by Buffalo’s Jackson Parker Public Relations, where she manages the firm’s social media accounts and promotes clients like singer Drea D’nur and the 43 North entrepreneurship competitions. She started her career at Jackson Parker as an intern and has worked her way up.
After their conversation, Reid was left with 22 minutes of raw footage to edit down to a 5 minute final video.
In order to create a compelling story, Reid drew on the storytelling lesson of her Narrative Arc class as she edited: She didn’t have to go in chronological order. “I didn’t want to go to the conventional route,” she said. “I wanted start with the juiciest part and then digress so it wasn’t just some dry piece. I wanted to make the audience feel something, just like [the story] made me feel something.”
For Reid, one of the most striking descriptions in the interview was the way Abiad compared Syria to Buffalo. “It was sad that people only saw the terrible war photos of her beautiful country. It would be as if people only saw pictures of Buffalo’s abandoned buildings. If someone was to portray my city like that I would be heartbroken because I know that’s a lie,” Reid said.
The final piece was a true collaboration. Reid wrote her own interview questions and conducted the interview. Local filmmaker and videographer Brenda Feldstein volunteered to shoot the interview so LaCherie could focus on the story. A former TV reporter in Brazil, Feldstein has assisted with technical production during the Digital Media and Communication program’s first year. As Feldstein listened to the interview, she was taken with Abiad’s story.
“I read so many stories about the Syrian conflict,” said Feldstein. “That was my first time meeting someone from Syria. That was a special moment. It makes me feel good to know that I was somehow contributing to spreading the information that I knew was true…I know that Syrian people are good people. Families like mine, mothers like me. Being able to spread the information, it was very special…It could have been me. Any of those immigrants. I just happen to live here in the United States. It’s luck.”
For Abiad, the interview was the beginning of her own community outreach project. Since then, she auditioned, and won, a spot in the presentation lineup for the TEDxBuffalo Conference, which will take place on October 26, 2017 at Asbury Hall in Downtown Buffalo.
At TEDxBuffalo, she intends to tell her story, how her preconceived ideas about America were wrong and talk about a phone app she’s been developing to help new immigrants get started in the community – from scheduling play dates, to learning basic English, to determining the difference between credit and debit. Abiad hopes it will connect new, foreign residents with volunteers willing to help ease their transition to life in a foreign land.
“I feel like I can do something to make people less nervous about Syrians and immigrants. There’s a lot of misconceptions,” said Abiad, 31. “I feel like it’s urgent now that we have to change the misconception of Syrians and immigrants in general.”
Of working with LaCherie, Abiad said, “It was so smooth and natural. What I loved mostly about this process and this project is that it didn’t feel like it had any agenda. There are purely good intentions, working with good people, and a lot of positivity in the process,” said Abiad. She was surprised to see a college student get hands-on experience with a professional project. “We didn’t get any real life exposure. It’s very different from Aleppo,” she said, thinking of her own college experience in Syria. “I am amazed. Students here are lucky to have these types of experiences before even starting work in the real world. I don’t know if they know how lucky they are.”
Abiad, who was born and raised in the Syrian capital of Damascus, moved to the United States in 2009 to pursue a Master’s Degree in Architecture, with specialization in Sustainable Urban and Natural Environments from the University at Buffalo. She serves as a key member on a variety of successful projects in WNY thanks to her experience in the architectural design of education and transportation facilities. While preparing for her TEDx talk, she was granted a scholarship to attend a leadership communication training at Harvard University.
The final video, which details Abiad’s marriage in Syria and her journey to the United States, where she studied architecture at University of Buffalo, out are detailed in a 5-minute video interview produced by LaCherie Reid. The video can be viewed below.
The video can also be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sI04HAxsVuI.