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Katrina neighbors 

Alison Aucoin hated that phrase the first time she heard it. "It sounded like Mr. Rogers does emergency management," she says. Then, when she learned what this week's Our Katrina Neighbors program was really about, "I absolutely fell in love with it."

It's a presentation of audio, video and photo documentaries created by local artists working with some of the 400 Katrina victims who ended up in the Triangle and participated in courses at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. It was one of several courses designed to help them address the tragedy and get past it (see "A year after Katrina," Sept. 6, 2006).

In the course called "Our New Orleans," documentarians worked with former residents of the Gulf Coast to tell their stories and explore issues like what makes a place home and how that's created in a strange new city. They'll show their work Thursday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham (free, presentation starts at 7 p.m.).

Aucoin, a New Orleans native who settled in Durham, will be there. You may remember her harrowing stories about surviving the storm, escaping and going home again in our Aug. 30 edition ("Refuge from the storm" and "Get the message").

What captured Aucoin's imagination was the idea that she and the others aren't just victims or refugees. The program "acknowledges what we bring to the Triangle. There's been a lot of discussion in New Orleans about people leaving, new people coming in, and the Americanization of New Orleans. I like the idea of the New Orleans-ization of America. I think that's what gets acknowledged in how this group is defining Katrina neighbors."

And that's what Aucoin feels she's doing. A grant writer who works for nonprofits in New Orleans and along the East Coast (and helps us out here at the Indy occasionally), she's bought a home in the Old North Durham neighborhood. During the Jewish high holidays, she hosted a breakfast for Durham friends and displaced New Orleanians. She wore an elaborate Mardi Gras costume to a neighborhood Halloween party and explained local customs.

"People have seen us as victims and asked what they can do for us, which is incredibly generous," she says. "What this does is say, 'Here you are, you're in a different place, here's what we have to offer, here's what you have to offer, let's mix it up and make it better.' It acknowledges that we are not just capable of receiving, we are capable of giving, and that's what makes us equal partners in a community."

She's in touch with friends all over the country and says nowhere else in the New Orleans/Gulf Coast diaspora is that being discussed. And it's essential to making one other realization possible.

"Buying a house was a huge, huge step for me, because it's a huge thing to say—Durham is my home," she says. "And in saying that, I'm saying New Orleans is no longer my home."

More by Richard Hart

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