Turning their stories into art

Saida, a 14-year-old from Kenya who lives in City Heights and studies at Crawford High School, is one of the artists whose work was recently displayed at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy Ogul

Saida, a 14-year-old from Kenya who lives in City Heights and studies at Crawford High School, is one of the artists whose work was recently displayed at Bread & Cie in Hillcrest.

Some abandoned their homes when the men with guns showed up. Some never even had homes of their own; they grew up in tents scattered throughout barren refugee camps. Many left what little they had behind to seek an education and a better future in the United States.

All are now students at Crawford High School’s New Arrival Center, which gives new immigrants a one-year crash course in English language and lessons on American culture before they are placed in standard math, science and history classes with other students their age. And their stories were highlighted during a month-long, autobiographical art show, “Hello, My Name Is,” through March 2 at Bread & Cie, a popular bakery on University Avenue in Hillcrest.

The students come from some of the most impoverished and troubled parts of the world: Ethiopia, Yemen, Vietnam, Somalia, China, Sudan, Vietnam, Guatemala, Burma and others.

“We wanted to tell the story of their arrival and travel and how they came to be here,” said Lynn Susholtz, the North Park-based artist who led the collaboration with students and teachers at Crawford High. “It’s not well known in most of San Diego that we have so many new immigrants from all over the world. Part of the purpose is to raise the visibility.”

Using watercolor and felt-tip pen, the students illustrated tags the size of index cards with images depicting their past, present and future. On the reverse, they wrote about their memories, feelings and hopes. The tags were strung from a clothesline along the café wall to simulate Tibetan prayer flags, Susholtz said.

“Many of the students who have been in the refugee camps have seen and gone through tremendous trauma,” said Viraj Ward, one of three teachers at Crawford’s New Arrival Center.

That trauma can be seen in some of the tags depicting soldiers holding weapons. Other tags featured exotic animals, doctors, mosques, flowers or school buildings.

“Images are something they relate to even when language might be a barrier,” Ward said.

Because most of the students at the New Arrival Center speak little English, local volunteers helped translate and write some of the words on the tags. Some students as old as 16 have never had any formal education, Ward said.

Saida, a 14-year-old student from Kenya, knows that story well.

“Girls are not allowed to go to school because it is too dangerous,” Saida wrote on the back of one of the tags she painted. “Sometimes people rape the girls. Some people do drugs. School is really expensive. Only the older children went to school and they would come home and teach us.”

At the opening night of the exhibit, Saida practiced her English with café patrons. She said she was excited to see her story on display.

“It makes me very happy because I’m here. I study. I’m free,” Saida said.

Despite their limited English, some of the students speak multiple other languages. Najat, for example, is a refugee from Sudan who speaks Arabic, Swahili, Somali, Masalit and some English. Still, she will have to take foreign language classes at Crawford in order to meet California high school graduation requirements.

One of Najat’s tags features an elaborate floral design that represents her goal of becoming a henna artist.

Elizabeth Cumming, who curates the monthly art exhibits at Bread & Cie, said the “Hello, My Name Is” show was especially impactful.

“You’re mesmerized, because they come from such a different place than an artist in this country would,” Cumming said.

San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten described the project as “completely inspiring.”

“I think the whole city needs to come out here and see this,” Marten said as she browsed the tags in the exhibit. “Children need to know that we care about them.”

Marten, who was principal at Central Elementary School in City Heights before stepping up to lead the school district, said the project shows how educators can recognize and honor the distinct gifts and stories each student brings to the classroom.

In addition to giving students a chance to express themselves, the “Hello, My Name Is” show also served as a fundraiser. Anyone could take home one of the tags for a suggested donation of $10 or more. The money will be spent on new art supplies, field trips and other forms of academic enrichment for the students who took part in the project.