Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Art for Refugees in Transition : an International Example of Intergenerational Solidarity by Magali Girod

“Putting words onto feelings is difficult. Not everybody needs to or can talk about traumatic experiences,” said Sara Green, a Columbia graduate and former professional dancer, as we started discussing A.R.T. She believes that art in many forms can help people express themselves and rebuild their confidence. That’s how Art for Refugees in Transition (A.R.T.) started in 1999.

When refugees flee the dangers surrounding their homes for safer grounds in a camp, they leave behind all their belongings along with items that remind them of their culture. Children as well as parents and grandparents show fear and hopelessness on their faces in these situations.

Humanitarian organizations give priority to food, water and shelter when refugees arrive in camps. Preserving culture is not a priority when refugees arrive in camps. Nevertheless, rebuilding community in the camps helps when refugees must return to their homes or adapt to a completely new environment.

A.R.T. partnered with the International Rescue Committee in 2003 in two Burmese refugee camps in Thailand where Sara worked to implement A.R.T.’s pilot program. She decided to link generations together through art and culture. When she arrived in the refugee camp, Sara noticed that older persons were isolated and left out. She invited the older refugees to gather and share their stories. More than a hundred responded.

Older Burmese refugees in Thailand gatered to share ideas with Sara Green, A.R.T.’s Executive Director.

Older Burmese women in the refugee camp.

Sara asked the older persons present what they wanted to share. For a few minutes, the room remained quiet and everyone seemed curious about of what would happen next. Suddenly, a 60 year old Burmese women started singing. Burmese people sing traditional songs as they walk through paddies to plant rice. Singing helps them keep going. Many women carried a child or grandchild on their backs as they sang, teaching the words and notes at the same time. Upon their arrival and subsequent life in the refugee camps, this routine disappeared as the refugees stopped singing. Sara understood very quickly that the older Burmese refugees wanted to share their traditional songs and pass them along to younger generations. In response, the A.R.T. program connected younger and older generations. The program succeeded and the whole community became involved in a song festival. A.R.T. succeeded in renewing hope among the refugees living in the camp.

Older Burmese women singing during the meeting.

Burmese Children during the festival.

Following her Thai experience, Sara created a flexible, self-sustainable program in Colombia and in the US in several refugee communities. Using a bottom-up approach, Sara has found success in different locations. The older refugees create an inter-generational program as they collaborate with children, each according to their own tradition. A.R.T. simply makes the project possible. Many times, family members get separated during emergency situations. Once they are in a camp, this cultural program helps them reunite and learn from one another. Refugees learn that they can rebuild a community and give hope to older persons and children in a new and foreign environment.

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