WASHINGTON — Just three years ago, Ibrahim Shkara wasn’t even living in the United States and couldn’t speak English.

But Tuesday, the 19-year-old Deering High School senior took the White House stage with First Lady Michelle Obama to accept a national award on behalf of a Portland, Maine-based writing center that helps children and young adults develop their storytelling skills.

Calling the assembled artistic youth the “next generation of fabulous,” Michelle Obama presented national arts and humanities awards to 12 after-school programs from across the country, and one international program from Honduras.

Among the honorees was the Telling Room‘s Young Writers & Leaders program, an after-school literary program for international multilingual high school students. The Young Writers and Leaders program is just one division of the Telling Room, which serves Portland students ages 6 through 18.

The national awards recognize the nation’s best youth programs that use arts and humanities to develop skills and increase academic achievement. Obama honored programs that teach ceramics, dance, music, writing and science. More than 200 people attended the event in the East Room of the White House.


Shkara and Telling Room Executive Director Heather Davis accepted the award, and got to spend a few moments with the first lady. The Telling Room will also receive $10,000.

“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, for sure,” Davis said Tuesday evening while waiting in Washington, D.C. for her flight back to Portland. “It was hard to believe that what was happening was real.”

“She was lovely and you could tell that Ibrahim was moved by her words,” Davis said.

Davis said that Shkara and his family are from Baghdad, Iraq, but fled to Cairo, Egypt, where they lived for eight years before moving to the United States in 2012. His parents and two brothers attended Tuesday’s awards ceremony.

“For a kid who didn’t speak English three years ago, he is an incredible writer. He has come very far,” Davis said.

Shkara poetry will appear in a new Telling Room book, “A Season for Building Houses,” released Tuesday and can be purchased at the Telling Room’s store at 225 Commercial St.


Though the Telling Room serves students who live in Portland, Davis said she would like to expand it to other communities.

Obama urged continued funding and support for arts and humanities programs, which she said also teach students problem solving, teamwork and discipline.

“There are millions of kids like these with talent all over the place, and it’s hidden and it’s untapped and that’s why these programs are so important,” she said. “We wouldn’t know that all this existed without any of these programs and that would be a shame.”

The 2015 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards are sponsored by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in partnership with three national cultural agencies.

The other programs recognized at Tuesday’s ceremony are:

n Action Arts and Science Program, Sioux Falls, South Dakota


n Art High, Pasadena, California

n CityDance DREAM Program, Washington, D.C.

n Spy Hop Productions, Salt Lake City

n Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra

n Ogden Museum of Southern Art Inc., New Orleans

n VSA Indiana Inc., Indianapolis


n The Center for Urban Pedagogy Inc., Brooklyn, New York

n Deep Center Inc., Savannah, Georgia

n Caldera, Portland, Oregon

n Organization for Youth Empowerment, El Progreso, Honduras.

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