Jeremy Ogul | Contributing Editor
Some of them fled their homes when the men with guns showed up. Some of them never knew a home, surviving only in tents scattered across barren refugee camps. Many of them left everything behind for the chance to get a basic education in the U.S.
All of them are now new students at Crawford High School in City Heights, and their autobiographical artwork is on display this month in a show titled “Hello, My Name Is…” at Hillcrest’s Bread and Cie.
The students come from some of the most impoverished and violent parts of the world: Ethiopia, Yemen, Vietnam, Somalia, China, Sudan, Vietnam, Guatemala, Burma and others. In their first year at Crawford High School, they take classes through the New Arrival Center, a district program that gives them a crash course in the English language and American culture before they are placed in standard math, science and history classes with other students their age.
“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 art project with teachers at Crawford. “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.”
Each of the students used watercolor and felt-tipped pen to illustrate tags the size of index cards that hang by string from a clothesline along the café walls. Resembling name tags or luggage tags, the display suggests the thought of Tibetan prayer flags. Students illustrated one side of the tags with images of their past, present and future. On the reverse they wrote about their memories, feelings and hopes.
“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 Arrivals Center.
Indeed, a few of the tags depict soldiers holding weapons. Others depict wild animals, doctors, mosques and schools.
“Images are something they relate to even when language might be a barrier,” Ward said.
Some of the writing on the tags was done with help from translators, because most of the New Arrival Center students speak little English. 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,” she 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 Bread and Cie 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,” she 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 English. Still, she will have to take foreign language classes at Crawford in order to meet California high school graduation requirements.
Another student, Hector, painted one of his tags with a colorful parrot, which is one of the things he misses most about his home country of Honduras. One thing he doesn’t miss is the hardship that resulted from flooding.
“Our house would fill up with water and we would have to leave,” he wrote.
Hector wrote that he is not sure what his future holds. He wants to be a good U.S. citizen and “maybe join the military.” Other students dream of being doctors, math teachers and artists.
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 district, said the project serves as an excellent example of the district’s mission to 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 is also a fundraiser. Anyone is welcome to 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.
Bread & Cie never takes commission from the art that is sold from its walls, and owner Charles Kaufman pays to install the monthly exhibitions. The intent is to give underrepresented local artists a chance to shine, Kaufman said.
“This is the ideal of what we had intended and wanted to do,” he said.
The students’ art will be on display through March 2.
—Contact Jeremy Ogul at Jeremy@sdcnn.com.