Refuge for Refugees

Owl and Panther Youth Film Project offers teens a chance to tell their stories, learn skills

A local expressive arts program for refugee teenagers completed its first semester in style last week with a sold-out film screening at downtown's The Screening Room.

The Owl and Panther Youth Film Project, run by artist-in-residence and documentary filmmaker Özlem Ayse Özgür, is a small program that teaches filmmaking techniques to high-school-age refugees as a means for integration, healing and empowerment.

With help from anthropology and film professors at the UA, as well as local volunteers, teenage refugees from all over the world are able to learn professional filmmaking and editing. In the process, the students also gain a community of friends and mentors who value cultural exchange.

"When you come to a new country, you've left everybody you know and you love behind," Özgür said. "But Owl and Panther destroys that fear."

For two hours every Wednesday, the students gathered in a UA Anthropology computer lab no bigger than an oversized closet to learn the most relevant technology available for short filmmaking. Over the course of four months, each student created two major film projects: a short self-portrait and a longer film about what "home" means to them.

"It's not just a one-way street," said one participant who is a graduating UA film major and Owl and Panther volunteer. "Every single class, I learn something from everyone involved because it's just such a variety of people from different backgrounds. It's a rewarding experience to see them so excited. Just when you think they are not going to be engaged because there's that teenager side, they are like totally there and with it and answering questions and blowing you away with very profound answers."

The goal of the class is to teach the students how to create a good image, how to tell a story and how to do both simultaneously to create an original film, according to the participant.

"One of my favorite moments was teaching them editing," the participant said. "I was sitting with the two girls, telling them all these things. I don't really know what they're taking in. Like, I don't know if they are really listening to me or if they care or if they're thinking about volleyball practice the next day. But as soon as I turned over the computer to them, they just completely took over and knew exactly where everything was. It was really cool to watch them take something they had just learned and use it to the fullest."

In this day and age, multimedia skills are becoming increasingly valuable. However, engaging teenagers in an afterschool class can be a daunting task.

"With the population that we serve it takes a lot of patience," said Abby Hungwe, administrative manager for Owl and Panther. "It's kind of like any teenager. You can't forcefully change their attitude or their willingness or anything like that. But it's more so with this group because they are from refugee families. They have been in this country anywhere from two years to like five or longer but there is quite a bit of adjustment that's still going on. You have to be patient and positive."

Owl and Panther, an expressive arts organization for refugee families run by the Hopi Foundation, prides itself in its valuable one-on-one volunteer/refugee interactions.

"When a kid doesn't understand something, it's very hard to speak up when it's a group of like three kids to one volunteer," Hungwe said. "It's much harder to speak up, I think, in that sort of scenario than it is when it's just you and another person. That's ideally how we operate when we are doing any sort of activity with the kids. They've been interacting with a volunteer one-on-one since they've been with the program."

But the students don't come to the film class to be with the teachers or volunteers, they come because they enjoy each other's company and they enjoy the learning process.

"It's really fun," another participant said as she edited her final film project. "I like that we can use the good cameras. They are much better quality than, like, an iPhone."

In addition to gaining new multimedia skills this semester, it seems the five students have absorbed a lot more.

"As an observer, they seem to be more comfortable with storytelling," Hungwe said. "Two of the kids have challenges with English. In the past, they have had difficulties expressing themselves verbally and they seem to be more comfortable with that now. It seems to me that this project has given them a lot more confidence in taking on leadership roles because they have more of a say in what they are doing."

Beyond anything else, the Owl and Panther Youth Film program needs dedicated equipment in order to grow and thrive in the coming years. Currently, all computers, editing software, and cameras are being donated or loaned to the program by community members and UA academic departments.

"I think with any work that you do with kids, the reward is seeing their growth and seeing them push through something that may have begun as a weakness and converting that into a success," Hungwe said.

Learn more about Owl & Panther at their website:

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to accurately reflect details of the Owl and Panther program. We've also been asked not to use the name of students who participated in the program.

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