After 7 years at Cony High School in Augusta, Maine, I have seen many images in sketchbooks and studio projects that give unique perspectives into students’ personal lives. These images open discussions that go beyond technical skills and knowledge. It’s the humanistic side of teaching that helps to foster them and helps us to carefully listen. In the last five to six years, Middle Eastern refugee students have arrived in Augusta, which has helped globalize our classrooms and given a perspective on life beyond Maine, of students who have endured upheaval of their families’ lives beyond what we can imagine. Luckily I had two advisees who helped me navigate my understanding of Iraqi culture and customs, as well as the Muslim religion.
There were many opportunities to have these conversations with students whose families had to escape from war and terrorism in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, as well as families from Puerto Rico who suffered from the hands of Hurricane Maria.
My first insight came from a Syrian refugee brother and sister who migrated from Arizona to Augusta. Their lives shaped a story of hardship and sadness. They asked for a sketchbook for their talented older sister. Not only had the brother and sister proved themselves to be motivated and expressive art students in their own right, but it became apparent that it ran in their family. I was excited to see their sister’s work which they shared a few days later.
“Art is the gateway to help immerse English Language Learners (ELL) into the regular classrooms”, stated Helen Renko from Cony High School Guidance Department.
I support this statement. The “gateway” is in the form of a universal, visual language, which provides opportunities to learn about refugee students and their background– from the displacement from their homeland to arrival in Augusta, Maine. Their verbal language skills varied from limited conversation to a well-developed grasp of English. But most of the conversations and expressions came through their artwork.
Their pride and identity with their home country came through often in student sketchbook assignments. Iraqi and Syrian flags appeared frequently, along with drawings or symbols about their families left behind in the brutal wars and conflicts. In “I Am From”, a poetry/collage project, the aforementioned brother and sister poured out their emotions through few English words and images of a small boy washed ashore (Aylan Kurdi). This photographic image, sketched and photocopied from his sketchbook, is burned into our global mind.
A personal connection to these horrible tragedies in the conflicts in Iraq and Syrian Civil War becomes less about news we read or listen to in a desensitized way and more about the students in my own classroom that have been affected directly, who tell their stories of unspeakable deaths in their families and the severe beatings of neighbors.
The Resiliency Project is an idea that was spurred by my refugee students and students who have faced, or still face, adversity, but still arrive at school every day, participating and coping in a teenager’s daily life.
Despite experiencing the most extreme adverse conditions, refugee students have a very respectful demeanor and exude an excitement to be in a safe and accepting place.
The Resiliency Project’s intent is to put a face on our school community and develop sensitivity to these adverse conditions which refugee students and families have endured, and students who suffer from mental conditions that sometimes make the most mundane challenges monumental. To create a community identity for groups of people that may not have understood or heard their stories, a project was designed and developed by Susan Bickford from University of Maine and Maine College of Art, with the focus on the collaborative process between the subject, photographer, student artists, and the audience. Collaboration for the Resiliency Project began with refugee student volunteers and Doug Van Kampen, a local professional photographer from Brunswick who is “married into” our Cony community. He volunteered his time to this project that just recently made its first gallery debut in November, in the Harlow Gallery exhibition, Immigration: Home Lost, Home Found.
This past November four students joined me on a project with Artists’ Rapid Response Team! (ARRT!), a non-profit organization that collaborates on social-political issues such as immigration, to create a banner for Harlow Gallery’s Immigration: Home Lost, Home Found exhibition. The design process, led by Natasha Mayers and the team of ARRTists, explored the theme of “home lost, home found”. Two students, Rafeef and Zeina Ahmed, told their story of displacement and travels from one temporary home to another, to their settling in their new home of Augusta, Maine. Stories of escape from violence and oppression, and leaving family produced visual images of destruction of their homelands and the rebirth of a new life in the United States. One question Natasha posed was, “What did you carry with you when you left your home?” Answers ranged from the clothes on their back to a family heirloom– a teapot and cups. This process was powerful as these images appeared in their work, along with destroyed buildings, a bridge, and Maine’s Capitol. From start to finish, Zeina held fast to the ARRT! process and finished the banner. It hangs with pride in the Harlow Gallery.
This fall, I was able to visit an exhibition of Bassam Khabieh’s work at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He is a Syrian photojournalist who has captured the last 7 years of the Syrian Civil War and multiple acts of cruelty against humankind on the sensor of his camera. This exhibit brought my experience together, teaching a new course (UMA/ Cony dual-enrollment digital photography) and working with refugee students, telling stories first hand through the power of visual imagery. This re-sensitized me to situations in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Puerto Rico. I felt I needed to share Bassam’s work with the Augusta community to help visually reinforce the stories that our own community has been sharing for years.
In hindsight, I feel honored and privileged to have had the experience of working with refugee students (“New Mainers”, as the Capital Area New Mainers Project refers to our new families), and sharing conversations through broken English and the common language of visual art. It has helped me expand my cultural understanding of a culture so often under attack. We share many beliefs in common, and we must take care of each other with love and respect no matter our misunderstanding and construed truths. This is what art and art education continue to teach me everyday.
By Jason Morgan, Cony High School Art Department Head and ASD Art Coordinator