Center combines art and culture for refugees

Posted: February 11, 2014

Blending 19th-century settlement house values with the healing power of art, a South Philadelphia storefront is the busy hub where trauma meets recovery for two of the city's fastest-growing immigrant groups: Burmese and Bhutanese refugees.

For Poonam Ghimire, 17, who was born in a refugee camp after her family fled a government crackdown on the Nepalese in Bhutan, the storefront called "Southeast by Southeast" (SExSE) is a place to demonstrate her culture's native dance moves alongside an African American break-dance crew.

Ghimire, her parents, and her brother were resettled in Philadelphia three years ago. Now she's a Furness High School junior and speaks English comfortably.

For her mother, Devi Ghimire, 40, SExSE is a place to practice traditional back-strap weaving, learn to knit American-style, try a sewing machine, and struggle in English class.

For the program's lead artist, Shira Walinsky, 41, who has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, SExSE is where she meets families at risk of isolation, depression, or worse and offers artmaking activities that showcase their resiliency and almost incidentally get them talking about their lives.

Ventilating their experiences can be profoundly important, experts say.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined 16 suicides of Bhutanese refugees resettled in America from 2009 to 2012 and identified "low perceived social support" as a critical risk factor. None of the deaths was in Philadelphia.

Southeast by Southeast, an homage to its 1927 South Seventh Street location and the Southeast Asian immigrants it serves, is a collaboration of the city's Mural Arts Program, the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative, and Lutheran Children and Family Service.

Mural Arts' executive director, Jane Golden, said the project began in 2012 after the Health Department awarded her group a grant to work with the city's growing populations of Burmese and Bhutanese.

The program makes murals, of course. An archetypal Asian tiger with patterns derived from traditional textiles is on an adjacent building's wall. Other murals are planned.

But operating on an annual budget of about $100,000, it also incorporates weaving, dancing, photography, and cooking, with volunteers providing translation as needed.

For one of the activities, participants used donated cameras to document their lives and shared the photos. Some also showed snapshots from their days in the camps. The exercise brought anger, anxiety, and sorrow to the surface as well as strategies to cope with loss.

Forced to flee

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is between Thailand and Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal.

Bhutan, farther north and west, is landlocked between India and China.

Since 1962, Myanmar has been ruled by a military government that has suppressed religious freedom and caused tens of thousands of Burmese minorities to flee to camps in Thailand and Bangladesh.

The Nepalese in Bhutan, known as Lhotsampas, were similarly persecuted and were forced back to Nepal, where they lived in camps and were not reintegrated.

In 2008, after decades of displacement, these refugees began to be resettled in third countries, including the United States.

The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 439 Burmese and Bhutanese living in Philadelphia.

Today, their combined population is 1,885, according to the most recent data from Pennsylvania's federally funded Refugee Resettlement Program in Harrisburg.

In addition to the traditional settlement house values of assimilation, teaching by example, and practicing cooperation across class and ethnic lines, SExSE is "art leading the way for change," Golden said, by "building on the talent that exists in the community."

Many refugees have never known safety and now find themselves in a city that can be frightening, said Melissa Fogg, a social worker with Lutheran Children and Family Service, which is responsible for SExSE case management.

Some clients are referred to clinical psychologists at local hospitals and universities, she said. Others "may never go to therapy or be compliant with a treatment plan. But coming together to make art, or work with language and imagery" can improve their outlook.

Samantha Matlin, a psychologist and special adviser to Arthur Evans, commissioner of the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, concurs.

"Depression, anxiety, lack of control. Think about people who have left their country, are receiving a lot of social services, [and] are not masters of their environment," she said. "Then they have an opportunity to be master of something, to teach others. After experiencing trauma, being able to have control is really important."

Will Pace, project manager at Mural Arts, said "destigmatization" was another of the program's goals.

"These populations have some really deep cultural assets to pull from," he said. The hope, he said, is to craft more people-to-people exchanges in the neighborhood, which includes African American, Latino, white, and other Asian residents.

Sharing the talent

For Wanda Miles, who lives around the corner from SExSE, that exchange has already occurred.

A newcomer to the neighborhood - she moved from Yardley about three years ago - she and Walinsky bonded over efforts to spruce up vacant lots.

"I have craft skills - sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilt making," Miles said. "I wanted to share some of my talent with the refugees."

What began as a onetime class in T-shirt quilt making, she said, turned into a three-day-a-week commitment as a volunteer. Now she and her daughter donate yarn for knitting and can't keep up with the demand.

Mail carrier Patrick Murphy didn't need SExSE to tell him the neighborhood was changing. He could see it in the faces of the residents on his route. When SExSE held an ethnic foods open house luncheon last month, he went to taste and show his support. "It's funny," he said, "how immigrants from the past are always suspicious of new immigrants."

Leela Kuikel, 36, executive director of the year-old Bhutanese American Organization-Philadelphia, an immigrant support group, runs the center a few blocks south of SExSE.

"Arts, to my understanding, are the easiest way to relate to people," Kuikel said.

Though many members of his community struggle with English, he said, "using [art] as therapy is a wonderful idea."



Burmese and Bhutanese in Philadelphia, 2010


Burmese and Bhutanese in Philadelphia, 2014

SOURCE: U.S. Census and Refugee Resettlement Program



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