Arts Feast: Celebrating Refugees and Immigrants in our Community

By Guest Student Blogger, Anna S.

The summer before my senior year I participated in a human rights symposium, in which students collaborated and discussed a wide variety of social justice issues, both domestic and international. This experience inspired me to pursue a long-term project connected to the plight of refugees within my own community, something that I have been passionate about. I developed the idea to host a fundraising and community-building event at the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (The RISSE center). Founded in 2007, the RISSE center supports newcomers from Myanmar, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Pakistan, Iraq, and many more countries in building sustainable lives in the United States through English classes for children and adults, an after-school program, naturalization and citizenship classes, and immigration and legal advisory services.

                 I had spent time at RISSE before, mentoring children, helping them with their homework, and developing friendships, so I immediately began to think of ways to support the center, which contributes so much to our local refugee population. In the past, I have volunteered for community engagement programs, but this was the first time that I was taking on the responsibility for an entire event. After developing the idea for this project, I started networking with artists, teachers, and members of the local immigrant coalitions. One of the best sources of networking that I found was through the Albany International Center. I visited Ms. Child’s art classes on multiple occasions hoping to display some of the art from her dedicated and talented students ranging from around 10 to 20 years old. Immediately upon walking into their classroom for the first time, I felt completely welcomed. Their generosity and openness were instantly evident. As I walked around the room looking at the art being made, I was delighted to see how much pride the students had for their artwork. Although there was an obvious language barrier, their compassion and commitment to their artwork were clearly evident. I looked through art that they had worked on throughout the year. I had never seen such a myriad of cultures so richly presented through all of their styles of painting and drawing. The candid manner in which they depicted patterns and people so obviously representing their home countries stood out to me. This art, for me, felt like the embodiment of what I was trying to achieve in my event and I was eager to choose pieces to hang.

                After attending a walk and vigil hosted by the Saratoga Immigrant Coalition, I met Maxine Lautenberg, a member of this coalition, who worked with me from then on actualizing my goals for this event. I formulated a plan and worked from August 2017 until the January 12 “Arts Feast.” With help from family members and friends, I networked with local restaurants and solicited donations of international foods from Chontong Thai, Sunhee’s Farm and Kitchen, Mamoun’s, Falafel Den, Umana, Ali Baba, and Esperanto. In addition to the restaurants’ donations, many family and friends brought a wide array of dishes to share, from Vietnamese pork buns to a traditional Turkish dish. Although I was too busy to actually eat any of the food during the event, I was happy with the wide variety of foods and heard many reports from people speaking highly of the food.

                When I began this project, I contacted a Syrian Artist from Syracuse, Nada Odeh. She was born and raised in Damascus and has recently come to the USA due to conflicts in her country. The key theme of her work is the conditions of Syrian refugee camps. She brought around five pieces to the event and in addition, she spoke about her experiences as a refugee and the inspiration for her art. I also showed the work of two adult refugee artists who I met through the Albany Art Room; one creates emotional drawings depicting the plight of refugees and the other creates detailed pottery with designs of Persian poetry glazed on. The other adult artist, whose work was on display, was a jewelry maker from Syria. She set up a display of a collection of her necklaces and sold many during the evening. I was put in contact with a woman from Turkey through the Saratoga Immigrant Coalition who recently arrived in the area and was thrilled to contribute to this event. Her daughter, around 15 years of age, expressed an interest in displaying some of her work. We set up a table for her sculptures, drawings, and sketchbook. I found her sketchbook to be the most incredible; she used a former calendar to sketch as she and her family made the journey to the United States. Filled with fantasy creatures paired with elaborate stories, I was entranced by her commitment to her art despite the tough conditions she and her family faced coming to the US. She was extremely proud to show her work. She said to me both timidly and graciously “this is my first time showing my artwork.” In addition to my reassurance, I am confident that the general feeling of compassion at the event helped her to feel greatly supported.

                There was a collaborative group canvas, which had the prompt, “paint something that represents you, your family, or your home.” My hope for this canvas was to connect everyone who attends around a common, creative, project representing the diversity and commonalities of everyone who attends this event.

                I came to the RISSE center about a month before this event and did a self-portrait project with the kids in the after-school program. With the help of my mom and a local non-profit organization called Up-Stitch, we made these drawings into 2 quilts. These quilts were raffled off at the end of the night. Up for raffle was also a painting by Susan Thomas, two paintings by my mom, a bowl by Pam Collins, a gift certificate to Sunhee’s, and two painted boxes. I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm for these raffle items.

                I had five speakers for the second half of the evening. The programming began with a performance of winter song by 12 tones, the senior acapella group at Emma Willard. Following this performance was Nada Odeh. After she spoke about her artwork, Assemblymember Pat Fahy spoke about the importance of persevering and remaining a welcoming community and country despite setbacks and frustrations at the national level. Next, Jad Jacob, the writer, and director of the film entitled I Am Syria spoke about his experience as a first generation Syrian American and his experience and motivation for creating this film. As he described, his goal was to humanize people and conflicts that often feel unapproachable and distant. We then had Kamiar and Arash Alaei, the founders of the Global Institute for Health and Human Rights at SUNY Albany speak about a new local initiative to bridge the gap between law enforcement and refugees. They are also the founders of the first “Triangular Clinic” for three target groups in Iran (drug users, HIV patients, and STD cases) and have implemented regional training workshops for HIV in countries such as Afghanistan. To finish off the programming, I had Rana Jacobs, a Syrian born poet recite some of her beautifully moving poetry.

                At the end of the event, I had the art teacher at the Albany International Center give out certificates that I had made for all of her students who had art up at the event. This was probably my favorite part of the night. Seeing the students beam with pride as they came up to get their certificates while a room full of people from all different backgrounds all showed unconditional support made me very proud that I could help support them in their creative pursuits.

                This evening brought together refugees, teachers, friends, and members of the community to celebrate the presence of a diverse and creative refugee population, to share a potluck meal, and to appreciate and buy art by local refugee artists. Being responsible for this event helped me develop my ability to work in collaboration with adults, who range in competence, effectiveness, and intellect, making this possibly more challenging than the dreaded “group project” in school. I feel that this event was rewarding for many people, including both the high school-aged refugees and the adult amateur and professional artists who showed their work, as well as the young children from the RISSE center who contributed art, the wider community, and for me. We raised over $3,000, more than I could have ever imagined, and from about 300 people attended the event. Going back to the RISSE center after the event, the children in the afterschool program were still enthusiastic about their contributions to the canvas and the flags and photos we left decorating the space. With this project, I stepped out of my comfort zone and now have the confidence to lead the planning and organization of more events in the future.

About Anna:

Anna S., age 17, is a senior at Emma Willard School. Her passions are in visual arts, community engagement, and psychology. She plans to pursue her education in human rights and international relations while continuing a commitment to her art.