Refugees make new connections through art

A sketch by Bishnu Maya Tamang from Bhutan is part of the “World Art Exhibit” on display at downtown’s Central Library (second floor) now through the end of the year. Image courtesy of the artist A sketch by Bishnu Maya Tamang from Bhutan is part of the “World Art Exhibit” on display at downtown’s Central Library (second floor) now through the end of the year. Image courtesy of the artist

Rarely do so many Americans feel divided, separated and isolated from one another as they have during this political season. Our inability to communicate and connect with one another as countrymen feels like an affront. For the thousands of refugees who flee violence, persecution, human trafficking or torture in their native countries in crisis, then arrive for resettlement in the U.S. every year, cultural isolation is a way of life. That’s where the International Rescue Committee comes in.

“They’re doing a wonderful job of bringing people from these war-torn areas to safety,” says Susan Patrick, a volunteer at the Charlottesville chapter of the IRC. “I think it’s a miracle people have this service.”

Every year, the IRC partners with the United Nations to help refugees rebuild their lives: to find affordable housing, enroll children in schools, participate in job-readiness training and receive medical care and mentorship. Patrick, who “went to the IRC because I was curious,” wound up teaching English to a Bhutanese man and his neighbor.

“I wanted to help someone improve his reaction to being away from his homeland, to being driven out and then coming to a new place where it’s very uncomfortable,” she says. After two and a half years, she believes he’s happier, better able to express himself and more acclimated to living in America.

Patrick, who worked for 30 years as an art teacher in Nelson County public schools, decided to take her support of refugee self-expression one step further.

“I wanted to get art into this idea, too,” she says. “When I taught, I felt like I was passing on the enjoyment of art and the importance of communicating through visual images. When I retired, that stopped.” Now she sees a chance for cross-cultural connection.

By displaying work that gives refugees space for self-expression, “[locals] would have an opportunity for a more intimate introduction to individuals who are new in the community, rather than just hearing about them, or seeing them on the Downtown Mall or at work,” says Patrick. “It would give them a real insight into something that they care about.”

She reached out to IRC volunteers for recommendations of potential artists, leading Patrick to create three workshops. The first was for a Girl Scout troop of refugees who were “very eager to draw images of their homes and farms. Some drew costumes. Some drew family. One girl drew a mosque that her father and brothers went to.”

A group of adults gathered at the apartment where they learn English from Zakira Beasley, another IRC volunteer. “Between us, we communicated this idea of people drawing from their memories, and they were very eager to do it.” The third group met at the IRC office, where Jim Gordon helped her communicate the idea to the English class he was substituting. Once again, Patrick says, people were very interested in drawing pictures of what they remembered.

She knew this project mattered because of how intensely they concentrated on their art-making. “I’ve seen that in the classroom, where it will get very, very quiet because everyone is so focused on doing the work.”

In total, the project generated 33 drawings by artists from eight different countries. Tom Otis from Fastframe volunteered to mat and frame the works for free, and for the next several months, the exhibit will travel through galleries across town.

Nearly all the pieces show happy scenes of houses, mosques, temples, animals or families. “These are things all of us can identify with, those of us who haven’t been refugees and those who have,” Patrick says.

Two drawings stand out, though. Drawn by a husband and wife from Syria, both depict the home they left behind. Hers is a pretty drawing of their house. “It looks like a big house, and it’s very attractive,” Patrick says. His drawing shows the same house—with a hand grenade drawn in the middle of the picture. “There are two bodies in the bottom of the picture,” says Patrick. “He told me that those were his parents. They died in the explosion.” The picture is made more disturbing by its normalcy. Only after you study it for a moment do you notice soft pink lines radiating outward from a central element, the shockwaves of a bomb.

“You sit with these people, and they laugh, and they thank you, and they bless you,” Patrick says. “They’re just so sweet. They smile easily. This man who drew his house after the bomb was really happy to draw this picture.

“I can’t imagine. I get so angry just being in traffic that’s too slow. It’s so embarrassing. When I’m with these people, they humble me.”

As an artist, Patrick says she feels a connection to all the pieces. But what about her goal to help locals get to know refugees through their visuals?

“One person drew a vegetable cart that was being pulled by oxen, and there was a dog barking,” she says. “He couldn’t tell me the words to explain that, but he did it with his drawing.”

Art may transport us to other worlds, but sometimes it’s the best way to connect us right here.

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