Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Birthday Party

Last Thursday evening; on my way to assist with a BuildaBridge group for  Burmese children in South Philadelphia, I pulled up to the street address greeted by yellow caution tape, police and crowds of neighborhood on-lookers. My car window was down and I overheard the words spoken, “somebody was shot.” My heart sank into my stomach.

I pulled across the street and parked my car. When I got out and started walking down the sidewalk, I saw Zing and her three children standing on the corner. It was a relief to see them and we waited together outside for a while, waiting for some communication with the teachers inside the classroom, which was directly behind the caution tape that we were not allowed through.  After some time passed and still no word, Zing asked if I wanted to go with them to a Burmese family’s home a few blocks away where apparently there was a birthday party happening.  When we got to the home, as we walked in the front door, a wave of warmth came over me. Not only was the temperature warmer-compared to the cold, Spring day outside-but we were greeted with such a warm welcome!

We were immediately given chairs to sit upon. I saw some familiar faces and waved; and some of the children recognized me and said, “Hi Miss Danielle.”  The children were laughing and running about, the adults were sitting on the periphery chatting or contentedly watching the children’s activity, the birthday boy’s father was walking around and taking pictures with a proud smile on his face.  I was sitting with a smile in my heart, taking in this joyous occasion. Cake was brought out and we all gathered around Steven, sang Happy Birthday to him and then bowed our heads in prayer.  This celebration, this birthday party was the perfect antidote to not dwelling on the tragic act of violence that happened just minutes ago. My phone rang and I received an update from Natalie and Liz, the other artists in our team. The relieving news came, everyone was safe and they had proceeded with the group as normal for the children who had already arrived.  Shortly after, Zing and I left the party to return to the classroom, the caution tape was gone. We got back just in time for the children to share their artwork with us, they appeared calm and happy. It was comforting to know that they were safe inside the center, creating art, while all the commotion was going on outside the classroom walls. Instead of leaving the night with a heavy heart, still at the bottom of my stomach, I left feeling hopeful and confident… because of the birthday party, because of the BuildaBridge artists' efforts to maintain safety, structure and a sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos, and for this reason, I call this a tale of one teaching artist’s transformative moment.
- Danielle Owen, Assistant Art Therapist

The shooting that occurred just minutes prior to BuildaBridge's Thursday night art group with Burmese children remains under investigation by police.  The good news is that all twenty of the children attending that night were not harmed.  BuildaBridge artists responded by remaining calm, flexible and adaptive. While half of the children attended the birthday party, the other half proceeded with the normal group that evening, processing the incident through art-making experiences in a safe and supportive environment.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

They fled Bhutan with their children on their backs

Since the early 1990’s, over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese refugees from southern Bhutan have fled to Nepal as a result of racially-motivated forced eviction.   In 1989, the king of Bhutan announced that the country would adopt the ‘One Nation, One People’ policy (also known as Bhutanization) prohibiting the practice of Nepali language, Hindu culture and religion, and any dress other than the traditional Drukpa dress. Thousands of Lhotsampa of Nepali descent who had been living in southern Bhutan since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were forced to leave the country.  Many were brutally tortured and others imprisoned; some spent nearly twenty years living in crowded refugee camps.

For the Bhutanese community in South Philadelphia, images of this history are now illustrated in a mural hanging at the Bhutanese American Organization of Philadelphia (BAOP).  Facilitated by BuildaBridge artists Julie Rosen and Stevie French, as part of Nationalities Services Center's Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience with support from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, twenty-nine Bhutanese elders spent  three months processing their histories through art-making experiences to create this mural.  The left-most section of the mural illustrates their lives as farmers in Bhutan.  The middle section depicts their forced journeys to Nepal and living in the refugee camps.  The third, right most section, shows their new home - Philadelphia.  Since the beginning of this idea in 2013, the goal has always been to display the mural at the BAOP in order for the elders to share their history with the next generation.

On April 11th, that goal was accomplished.  Sixteen children, some parents and other leaders from the Bhutanese community gathered at the BAOP to reveal the mural and listen to the elders share their stories and process of the mural. 
"We want to keep our history alive; we want to pass our history on through the mural to our children."
"It's a blessing being a part of this community and share the artwork with them."
"All [of us] were resettled in different countries, we came to Philadelphia.  I love Philadelphia.  I traveled to many cities - Philadelphia is my favorite."

See pictures from the BAOP event here.  Read about the beginnings of this mural here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Things We Leave Behind

There used to be a tree outside of my childhood home that my sisters and I loved. We’d claim to be queen and play on it, imagining that the world was ours. Eventually, the roots from the tree dug their way underground towards the house. It was no longer safe to have it there. The tree had to be chopped, the stump uprooted. We had to leave the tree behind and although I loved that tree and it held a plethora of memories, with time comes change.

When Frank and Beverly came to their second PPR session, they found the art prompt for the day to be particularly challenging for them to think about. Frank had drawn a tunnel and stated that he felt he is in darkness. They both became upset at the thought of their home, the way they had left it, and explained to the group that they had lost everything when they came here. The thought of this made them both very emotional, they thought deeply about their losses. Frank stated that he would like for his family to remember that he loves them.

Roots to Routes, Image by Kelly Finlaw
At this time, Becky, our creative arts therapist, shared with the group that remembering and experiencing love for others can help guide us through darkness. I reached my hand out and placed it on Beverly's shoulder to provide comfort, we smiled at each other for a moment. When Frank apologized for becoming emotional, Becky assures them both that their openness in class is appreciated and encouraged. This is a place for them to heal. - Emily Kimmelman, Artist-on-Call

BuildaBridge is facilitating hope, healing and resiliency through art-making experiences for Frank, Beverly and the other nearly 200 refugees served throughout the year in Philadelphia. 

Donate today to Roots to Routes to help Frank and Beverly continue their journey of processing their roots towards positive routes into the future.  The goal is to raise $1,000 by the end of April!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Roots to Routes Full of Hope

Whenever a new refugee joins a therapeutic art-making group as part of the Philadelphia Partnership for Resilience, he or she wonders:  How can art help me?  Will others be able to empathize with me about my experiences?  How do I share my ROOTS, culture and story with others who speak a different language?  How can this art group help others like me?

Their questions are answered after attending groups regularly.

The boundaries and structure of the groups created a safe environment for clients.  Clients came to rely on and participate in more fully the rituals and opening and closing activities that were conducted as part of each group.  The art-making processes allowed clients to channel emotions through their art.  The sharing of artwork prompted discussions about their feelings, experiences, hopes and dreams.
Roots to Routes [image courtesy of Kelly Finlaw]

By the end of the last group of a 10-week term, clients are interacting with each other openly, acting as guides for one another where language barriers were a challenge; they discuss their experiences of being victims of torture and having to uproot to a new, strange place with more ease.  The client that was once new, now feels like they belong to a community; they now know that these BuildaBridge art groups have a specific purpose  - to act as a catalyst towards building ROUTES full of hope, healing and resiliency.

You can make a difference.  You can help refugees and immigrants with whom BuildaBridge works appreciate and share their ROOTS towards building ROUTES full of  their dreams, hopes, developing trusting relationships with others and building community. 

Donate to Roots to Routes today to make a difference.

[Roots to Routes, the annual fundraiser for BuildaBridge's Refugee Project, starts today, April 1st and ends April 30th, 2015.]