“What I want to share with you is very important,” said Yaroub Al-Obaidi, community liaison for the Friends, Peace & Sanctuary project. “The definition of a ‘refugee’.”
Al-Obaidi, a writer, artist and arts activist, looked out at an audience of mostly native-born Americans, during an exhibit by the International Refugee Assistance Program and Penn Law & The Arts earlier this month, and began to underline what he sees as the important distinction between an immigrant and a refugee—a misconception he comes across often. “A refugee is a person who is the same like you,” he said. “He has [a] life, he has [a] car, he has [a] house and he has [a] job. But now he cannot go back to his country.”
Each year, 68.5 million men, women and children are forced to leave their homes because of war, political upheaval, or the threat of persecution, according to the International Rescue Committee. This places them under the category of refugee and asylum seeker. An immigrant, on the other hand, is someone who made a conscious decision to leave their home and resettle elsewhere. Both come with extreme challenges, hardship and heartache.
“A refugee is a person who is the same like you,” he said. “He has [a] life, he has [a] car, he has [a] house and he has [a] job. But now he cannot go back to his country.”
But what Al-Obaidi, who grew up in Iraq and moved to Philadelphia in 2016, along with those collaborating on the Friends, Peace & Sanctuary project, want people to know most is: They are more than just a category; they are individuals, with individual experiences, just like the rest of us.
This weekend and throughout the spring and summer, the Swarthmore-based project will use art, conversation and community engagement to explore the displacement, refuge, history and hope of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Kicking off the weekend, artists and community members are invited to come together to celebrate the culmination of a two year multimedia arts project about being a refugee, and how that informs life in the U.S. On Saturday, participants can sample Syrian and Iraqi food, learn about the culture of each and join a number of art demonstrations at Swarthmore College’s science center.
“The arts tends to have a focus on individuals. When we think about arts we often think about ‘Picasso,’ we often think about these big individuals,” artistic director Suzanne Seesman says. “One of the things that’s really crucial in general is that arts more often happens in communities, there’s a whole group of amazing artists in Northeast Philadelphia, in the whole Philadelphia region, and by Iraqi and Syrian people who have resettled.”
Supported by a Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage grant, Friends, Peace & Sanctuary is a program of Swarthmore College Libraries and Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility. It began in 2017 as a way to bring together renowned book artists—like Islam Aly and Maureen Cummins—and displaced individuals in Philadelphia to help spark a discussion around belonging, building empathy and portraying refugees as more than one monolithic group.
“We want to go against the stereotyping about refugees,” Ramadan says. “Each one has a different story, different background and it’s important to show that diversity.”
In the last two years, artists from across the city and region have collaborated with resettled individuals in Philly who learned book art skills like bookbinding, paper cutting, silk screening, paper making and photography by participating in workshops. Artists then created their own works based off of their interactions with resettled individuals and hearing their stories.
That work that will be on display starting this weekend at Swarthmore; and throughout July in City Hall, Twelve Gates Arts, the Free Library Parkway Central Branch; and then ending in the fall in Brooklyn.
City Hall, Twelve Gates Arts and the Free Library represent, to Seesman, a “magic trio.” From the contemporary art gallery, to the place where public policy is made, Seesman wanted to extend the conversation far and wide around the central question the project asks: How might sharing personal experiences through the process of making art about migration, displacement or refuge increase our sense of belonging?
Works will include sound and sculpture, performance art, art that resulted from workshops with renowned artists in collaboration with local refugees, and archival material.
Storyteller, engineer and collaborator with Friends, Peace & Sanctuary Shouq Ramadan, a 31-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Syria, says she hopes the exhibitions will give people a better understanding of refugee life. “We want to go against the stereotyping about refugees,” Ramadan says. “Each one has a different story, different background and it’s important to show that diversity.”
Friday, March 29, Opening Exhibition & Communal Dinner, 4:30 pm-8:30 pm, Tickets Here, Swarthmore College, McCabe Library, 500 College Ave, Lansdowne; Saturday, March 30, Community Celebration, 12 pm-6:30 pm, Swarthmore College Science CenterPhoto via Friends, Peace & Sanctuary Facebook