For refugees who flee persecution and resettle in America, words cannot always communicate experiences from their past or feelings about their new home. A recent exhibition of artwork by 150 refugee and immigrant students living in North Carolina provided an opportunity to share unique perspectives and open dialogues with new neighbors.
Organized by the Art Therapy Institute, Journeys to a Different Landscape, showcasing works by kindergarten through high school students from 19 different countries who have settled in the Triangle area, drew more than 100 community members to its opening in Carrboro on May 13.
The Art Therapy Institute has worked with newcomer students since 2008. This event marked the 8th annual exhibit honoring their artwork and stories. Art therapy helps recent arrivals to America increase self-expression, self-esteem and social skills; navigate the acculturation process; share personal and collective narratives and combat the stigma and fear-based rhetoric often associated with the refugee experience by honoring stories of hope and resilience.
Thanks to a grant from The Linking Communities Project, ATI was able to collaborate with Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, a local organization that provides refugee adults and youth access to land, healthy food and agricultural and entrepreneurial opportunities. Chef and farmer Khai Nyui prepared a sampling of traditional dishes from Burma for all guests to enjoy, and Vera Fabian, Assistant Farm Manager, presented a short documentary about the farm.
Many guests stayed past the event’s closing time to continue viewing art, reading stories, and speaking with the artists. While many show-goers were ESL students and teachers, 48% of attendees reported that they had little or no knowledge of the newcomer community prior to the show. Notably, 98% of attendees stated that they learned something from the show, and that they would like to continue learning more about the local newcomer community in the future.
One attendee told ATI that the students “have a voice that can encourage change, empathy and understanding in our own children and adults.” Another stated that the show was “very inspiring…I glimpsed a degree of subtlety and depth I did not anticipate.”
When asked what they would like to say to the student artists, one guest replied, “your strength can be seen through your artwork, and the hope that you have despite all of your experiences is inspiring.” Another thanked the students “for sharing your story and being part of our community.”
Another attendee was reminded of her own family’s journey: “Your bravery at starting over in a new country is inspiring and reminds me of my parents when they came to the USA.” Another guest stated, “I feel honored to have been able to see this,” while another wrote simply, “it made my heart smile.”
Here at ATI, we agree with all of these statements. Every day, we are humbled by the narratives that newcomer students choose to share with us. We look forward to continued work with this inspiring community, because we truly believe that, through expressing visual and verbal narratives, we can acknowledge, honor, and uplift the humanity we all share.