On Saturday, April 16, the Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP) hosted a meeting in preparation for an art show called “Art in Crisis,” which is coming to the University’s Center for Humanities on May 1. The meeting, which gave students an opportunity to learn more about refugee issues, was intended to promote the art show itself, introducing students to some of the pieces that will be featured at the event. Sophie Zinser ’16 and Elisavet Arslanoglou ’16, along with their project assistant Thafir Elzofri ’19, coordinated the meeting.
WRP is a student-run volunteer initiative that was co-founded last semester by Zinser, Casey Smith ’17, and Cole Phillips ’16. WRP’s three central community outreach efforts involve tutoring Syrian refugee students online in Turkey and Jordan, helping refugees in Connecticut fill out subsidized housing and energy assistance applications, and working with the International Refugee Assistance Program to help Iraqi refugees get resettled to the U.S.
Zinser spoke more specifically about WRP’s work with refugees in Connecticut who are filling out various housing applications.
“I organize bi-weekly trips to Integrative Refugee and Immigration Services in New Haven, where we work with refugees who live in New Haven to help them fill out [the] applications,” Zinser said. “It’s a lot of work, but it ends up with us giving a check to people for their rent for a year, which is huge when you don’t have a stable source of income. So, it’s very effective, the work that Wesleyan volunteers have been doing.”
Before turning to the artwork itself, Zinser gave an introductory presentation for students who might not have been familiar with refugee issues. She first went over was the definition of refugee, which differs from that of an immigrant, migrant, asylum-seeker, or internationally displaced person (IDP).
Taken from the 1951 Refugee Convention, the definition of “refugee” given at the meeting was a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Zinser emphasized that having a clear understanding of the definition is important because it can easily be confused with other terms, especially in mainstream media coverage, which sometimes refers to the refugee crisis as a “migrant crisis,” which, Zinser explained, is not entirely accurate.
Zinser went on to share statistics reflecting the ongoing crisis that has displaced over 60 million people worldwide. Half of those people are children, and 11 million of them are displaced within their own country. She went on to dispel certain misconceptions people have about refugees, such as the assumption that all refugees come from the Middle East or North Africa. People are being displaced all around the world, specifically in Europe, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
After going over basic facts about refugees, the meeting’s focus turned directly to “Art in Crisis.” The show will be coming to the University directly from the U.S. Embassy to the U.N. after a month-long run. All the work featured comes from artists within Zaatari Refugee Camp, the largest camp in Amman, Jordan, home to over 100,000 refugees.
“Art in Crisis” is sponsored by the Amal Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting refugees and their host communities. Zinser explained how the foundation came to host the show, stating that the proceeds will go directly to the foundation and to support the artists themselves.
“[The Amal Foundation] worked with a variety of people within Zaatari Refugee Camp who are doing art in various collectives…they bought the art, brought it back to the U.S…and they’re doing these shows across the country,” Zinser said. “One [coordinator of the foundation] is going to Canada to sell the art and give the money directly back to the artists…so it’s a way to give aid…based on talent and merit.”
Zinser pointed out the irony in the fact that it is difficult for refugees to get to the United States, but incredibly easy for their art to enter the country.
“There’s something kind of magical about the fact that we’re having this conversation,” Zinser said. “Part of why we’re doing this is to introduce [the artists] as if they were here to do their own Q & A, but they can’t be here.”
Arslanoglou gave a brief introduction to the show itself and the artists that will be featured in it.
“These are people from all different backgrounds,” Arslanoglou said. “Some of them happen to be artists who were either professors of art in Syria, or students of modern art, and they continue doing art in the [Zaatari] camp….It’s a great cause, and very nice to help them out by showing their work in the U.S.”
The presentation then introduced some of the individual artists themselves. Out of the nine shown, six are active in the Zaatari artist community but will only have one or two pieces in the show, if any. The last three artists were discussed more in depth and will have a larger body of their work featured.
Zinser explained that because the artists will not be able to attend the show themselves, WRP would help facilitate communication. This will be done through transcribing student responses to the art shown in the meeting, translating them, sending them to the artists, and then getting some statements back, hopefully answering any questions that were posed by students in the discussion.
By showing the artwork first and recording immediate reactions, the coordinators hoped to create an experience for the artists and viewers that would mirror the typical way in which an art show usually works. Zinser hoped that students could try to imagine they had simply come upon these artists in a gallery.
Before each piece of work was shown, the coordinators shared a quote from the artist in order to paint a clearer picture of where the artists are coming from.
Elzofri explained the reasoning behind including the statements.
“We find it very important that we actually read [the quotes]…because the artists can’t be here, so this is us being their vessel and actually saying what they wanted to,” Elzofri said.
Students then reacted to a variety of the pieces that will be included in the show, some of which left lasting impressions of sadness, pain, loss, struggle, and hope. The coordinators also reminded the group that there are limited resources in the Zaatari camp. One of the drawings was done on a standard piece of notebook paper with a ballpoint pen.
The show will run from May 1 through commencement, and students are encouraged to bring their families. An opening reception will be held on May 4 at 5:30 p.m. in the University’s Center for the Humanities.