Khalil Kilani performs in The Telling Room's Show and Tell. Kilani, a freshman at Bowdoin, is an alumni ambassador for The Telling Room. Credit: Courtesy of Sean Mewshaw

Khalil Kilani came to Portland as an Iraqi refugee around a decade ago. Now, the 19-year-old Bowdoin student is working to empower and raise money for young writers across Maine.

Kilani is one of several Mainers, from college students to national stars, taking part in Portland-based The Telling Room’s Show and Tell show that will premiere online on April 6. Sales from the tickets for the virtual event benefit the organization, which nurtures and publishes writers aged six to 18.

Kilani graduated from The Telling Room’s Young Writers and Leaders program and was published in the organization’s books multiple times. The program left a strong imprint on him, helping him feel much more comfortable with public speaking – Kilani realized the power that his own story could have to inspire others and build community, he said.

Though young, he has already had many experiences: he was born into a family of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, living in the country until he was six. Life was often difficult for him and his brother as they were raised by a single mother. They didn’t always have enough food, he said.

His family moved to the U.S. in 2009. The family first lived in Texas, where their lack of English and money made life challenging. They moved to Portland as “kind of a last shot,” Kilani said, but found themselves warmly embraced.

“Maine has treated us really nicely,” Kilani said. “Everything from school to work to the neighborhood we were around just enriched our upbringing.”

After getting involved in The Telling Room in high school, he now serves as an alumni ambassador for the organization as he goes through his first year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. That role brought him into Show and Tell as an emcee and actor.

Kilani appears with three other Telling Room alumni ambassadors — Yousi Alshuwaili, Cam Jury and Nina Powers — in documentary-style scenes dispersed throughout the show that portrays a parallel universe where the ambassadors are going through the complex and chaotic motions of putting on Show and Tell.

Acting was another way to go outside of his comfort zone, even at the risk of embarrassment, Kilani said. He often shot the same scene multiple times squaring in on a particular emotion, a practice he found exciting.

“The main thing I learned was how to harness my emotions,” said Kilani, who said he was now looking into taking an acting course. “And really just expand my comfort zone — put myself out there.”

Kilani and the other ambassadors were directed by Sean Mewshaw of Portland, who has been with Show and Tell since the beginning and came back for the fourth annual show.

Mewshaw has long worked in theater and film, including putting on five plays in Portland over the last decade. He also did work on the set of major films, including “Gangs of New York,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and directed his own feature in 2015, “Tumbledown” starring Jason Sudeikis.

Mewshaw especially enjoyed the improvisational elements of working with the ambassadors to craft the mockumentary, particularly because he was working with people, including Kilani, who had never acted before.

“There’s a great energy to that, and there’s fear and anxiety … but it’s fun and loose,” Mewshaw said. “It’s that energy and that collection of people coming together and taking risks.”

For someone who had never acted before, Mewshaw said Khilani struck all the right notes. Directors often need to work closely with actors on their nerves, but Khilani was “fearless,” he said.

“He knew exactly how to be funny and serious at the same time,” Mewshaw said. “His focus and intensity was great.”

The show will feature several notable names, including Mandy Gonzalez, currently starring in the Broadway musical Hamilton, comedian Hari Kondabolu, who also attended Bowdoin, writer Morgan Talty of Levant and Portland singer-songwriter Genevieve Stokes.

Stokes will be performing a new song, while most of the show will be stories told through short films from different filmmakers.

For Kilani, who often has busy days and spoke on Friday morning while on a Bowdoin trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, he particularly enjoys The Telling Room’s goal of empowering youth voices.

Even as he pursued his studies and eyes a potential career developing vulnerable parts of the country and world, he said he was happy to make time for The Telling Room.

“It’s something that makes me wake up in the morning with a smile,” Kilani said. “Definitely something I’ll always make time for.”