Research-based puppet show sheds light on the refugee experience in America

by | Nov 12, 2020

"We Came As Refugees: An American Story" tells the story of a family adapting to the U.S., drawing on interviews with St. Louis refugees from around the world.
We Came As Refugees

“We Came As Refugees: An American Story” was developed as a cooperative effort between the UMSL School of Social Work, the UMSL College of Arts and Sciences, the St. Louis Storytelling Festival and the University of Missouri Extension. It was funded via a University of Missouri Research Board grant and tells the story of the a Syrian refugee family adjusting to life in the United States. (Photo courtesy of “We Came As Refugees: An American Story”)

A pair of University of Missouri–St. Louis faculty members have teamed up to use the power of theater to educate the public about refugee experiences with the help of a $37,000 grant from the University of Missouri Research Board.

Uma Segal, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Social Work, is serving as the principal investigator on the project with Felia Davenport, associate professor of communication and media studies, the co-principal investigator.

When Davenport saw “Avenue Q,” a musical comedy featuring puppets, she had a realization. Audiences were much more receptive to new, challenging ideas when they came from puppets rather than actors.

These were two of the catalysts behind the research project and new puppet show “We Came As Refugees: An American Story.” Davenport, also a professional costume designer who has received several awards for her creations, worked with Segal, a research team and Daniel “Digger” Romano, master storyteller and puppeteer, who developed the play.

“It really evolved out of the idea that many people have a lot of misconceptions about refugees and have very little idea of the difference between refugees and immigrants,” Segal said.

The research team will also determine the potential for the play to serve as a teaching aid about challenges refugees face in adapting to life in the United States.

Two performances are scheduled to be livestreamed on Zoom, one on Thursday at 1 p.m. and an encore on Saturday at 7 p.m. They are both free but registration is required. Attendees of the virtual events will be asked to fill out 5-minute surveys before and after the performances to gauge what they learned.

“If it’s found to be efficacious between the pre- and post-surveys, then we can use it as a model for education,” Segal said.

This is a cooperative effort between the UMSL School of Social Work, the UMSL College of Arts and Sciences, the St. Louis Storytelling Festival and the University of Missouri Extension. Through the UMRB grant, Segal designed the study and hired and supervised research assistants Ramona Marshall, an MA graduate in public policy from UMSL’s Department of Political Science, and Stacy Brown, an MSW student from the School of Social Work.

Over the course of a year, they conducted interviews with refugees in the St. Louis region from Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Syria. They also interviewed stakeholders who interacted with the refugees on a day-to-day basis such as employers, physicians, caseworkers, ELL teachers and neighbors.

“It was definitely a very rewarding experience,” Marshall said. “There are major recurring themes that we found. Even though the refugees come from different countries and come from different backgrounds – some were in camps, some weren’t – there were recurring narratives that emerged.”

Marshall and Brown meticulously recorded and transcribed the interviews and passed the information to Romano, who used those real-life experiences and verbatim wording from the interviews to write the script. Puppeteers Stanley Gulick and Michelle O’Donnell will perform the script with direction by Romano. Davenport crafted the puppets and their costumes.

The story focuses on a family of Syrian refugees, but it includes details from everyone interviewed. It is a “master” story, not an individual family’s story, and it includes elements that are experienced by most refugees – regardless of their origins or their experiences prior to entering the United States.

Davenport said the team felt a responsibility to tell a story that was as authentic as possible.

“We wanted to make sure that we were accurate,” she said. “To the point that a picture was taken and we had them redo the photo because they had not fixed the hijab properly on my puppet, and I didn’t want to show disrespect at all.”

The team will have to wait for surveys to be completed before determining what effect the story had on audiences, but they’re hopeful for a positive response.

Davenport said that the contemporary refugee experience is often not addressed in K-12 education, and “We Came As Refugees” could be illuminating for those not exposed to that information. Marshall concurred, noting the neighbors of refugees she interviewed were mostly curious about process of coming to the U.S.

“I think people just appreciate being given the actual information,” Marshall said. “How much do refugees actually get when they come here? What other help do they get? I hope that this can be a really important educational resource for people to get accurate information. Then they can make up their minds how they feel about it, but to at least have accurate information is very important.”

If it has the desired result, the play could be a blueprint for others to follow. Segal said it could also open the door for further research. She added if the surveys show that it was not effective, the play will be modified and the process will be repeated in the spring.

Either way, the team was pleased with the versatile format of the final product. Not only can recordings of the performances be used in the future, but the puppets are approachable for younger students.

“I think it works better this way, too, especially with us dealing with COVID,” Davenport said. “The puppet idea, that worked with COVID more so than dealing with actors, and I thought it was an interesting way to try to get people to accept what was being said.”

Segal also stressed the importance of the project’s interdisciplinary partnership.

“We really have reached across departments, across segments of the university, as well as within the St. Louis community,” she said. “It’s more than just entertainment. It is also a community engagement project, consistent with the mission of UMSL, and is drawing together a diverse group of disciplines to make a product that can be used down the road.”

Those interested can register for Thursday’s performance at and Saturday’s performance at

The performances can be accessed for 24 hours after streaming.

Media Coverage
St. Louis Public Radio

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

Eye on UMSL: Building blocks

Members of the Spring 2024 graduating class of the University of Missouri–St. Louis play Jenga during the annual New Grad Bash on Thursday.