When walking through the Thomas Paine Plaza in Center City this September, take some time to look away from your smartphone and look around: What you see may just show you sides of the immigrant and refugee experiences you hadn’t considered before.
Around that time is when Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, the West Philly-based Arab arts and culture nonprofit, will be putting up a public photo installation depicting immigrant youth experiences on the walls of the Municipal Services Building, along with other artistic elements in the form of ground images and postcards. It’s one of the five local projects being funded — with $180,000 — through the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge.
Several students from Northeast High School are taking time out of their summer vacation to make sure the photos of them and the corresponding words are truly representative of their experiences immigrating to the U.S. and the time spent here in the States.
Expect to see 25 photos with corresponding words for each letter in the alphabet; X is left out because it’s not a letter in the Arabic language.
This past Friday and Saturday, eight Northeast High School students sat down with Al-Bustan staff and the photographer who took their photos, Wendy Ewald, to talk about things like how facts about immigration and refugees should be implemented into the installation or whether the photos she took did a good job in visualizing the words the students chose for their own portraits.
One of those words is “trust,” something that Rushana Nasmova, 20, was reluctant to do when she and her mother emigrated from Tajikistan to the U.S., after having experienced many struggles already. It’s why the corresponding photo for that word depicts a blindfolded student, and that’s something Nasmova hopes will help people to relate a bit closer to the entire immigrant and refugee experience.
“It is important because we are trying to understand the message behind this word,” said Nasmova, a recent Northeast High School graduate.
The same photo also has the blindfolded student stretching out her arms, as if looking for any kind of help she can get. This reflects a side of the word “trust” that Doha Salah, 18, expressed when discussing what facts could go with the word. For her, she feels that many immigrants and refugees often don’t have any choice but to trust people, especially in the situation that they’re in.
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“You’re coming to a foreign country, and most of us didn’t have family or anyone that we know here so you do have to trust people around you — that’s the only way you can get through things,” said Salah, also a recent Northeast grad.
This whole experience for Nasmova and Salah of having the photos taken, choosing the words and discussing amongst one another has so far also reflected Al-Bustan’s Tabadul Project, which is the program at Northeast meant to help the 50+ language speaking-student body, and their families, relate and connect to one another.
It’s something immigrants and refugees need during a time when the very country they moved to is taking steps to keep people like them out.
“When you get into a group with similar stories, you feel like you fit in because we always share those stories. Some of them were a bit similar — we all had to leave something,” Salah said. “I guess that was the best part of it, you didn’t feel left out.”
For Ewald, who has been involved in projects that have focused on refugee experiences before, working with these students provided its new revelations, one being how excited and open some of the students were in sharing their stories. So, in the same way Ewald was at Northeast this past spring to just listen and take in what the students had to say, she hopes the photo installation will make people feel invited into the immigrant and refugee experiences.
“This is something people should do,” Ewald said.