Rebuilding Refugee Identities
Art for Refugees in Transition or A.R.T. is an organization that focuses on helping refugees maintain their culture and tradition within their camp community. Each program begins the process of rebuilding refugee identities. The goal of A.R.T. is to help refugee children connect with their elders and find a sense of belonging. In 2003, the first programs launched were in Myanmar and Thailand. The programs have reached camps across South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Why Do Refugees Need Art?

Outside organizations, like A.R.T., play an important role in giving refugees opportunities to improve their livelihood in a camp. Refugees focus on survival, often losing their sense of identity and belonging. Through art, refugees have an opportunity to remember or connect with their roots.

Violence, economic instability and gang crime plague Venezuela leading many individuals to flee to neighboring Colombia. As of 2022, Colombia was home to 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees. Colombia’s refugee camps or communities do not always have access to services like schools. A.R.T. works to help youth learn about their culture, background and each other.

Art Projects Rebuild Refugee Identities

Venezuelan refugees and displaced individuals live in communities throughout Colombia. Tintalito is a neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia where A.R.T. began its first program. Tintalito is the home of 180,000 refugees. With the help of the University of the Andes and New Retreat Educational Foundation, A.R.T. implemented a traditional arts program for academic credit. The interdisciplinary program includes anthropology, psychology, literature and fine arts.

A.R.T. works with the Serena del Mar Foundation to bring art to a coastal refugee community in Colombia: Manzanilla. Here, A.R.T. provides a space for the community’s elders to share with the younger generation. The program fosters a community project for many generations. “The elders of the community recorded their thoughts on the sea, its importance in their lives as well as stories, folklore and their history with the sea.” The youth listens to the stories, translating the message into a mural. This art project preserves cultural traditions despite the uncertainty the community experiences. The art projects are also rebuilding refugee identities for both elders and children.

The Impact

Based on data from 2022, around 90,000 Burmese refugees fled Myanmar or Burma to escape persecution. Many of these refugees, primarily of the Karenni ethnic minority, live in temporary shelters throughout the Mae Hong Son Province in Thailand. Like many of the communities A.R.T. took its programs to, Burmese refugees can connect to their homeland and culture through art. A.R.T.’s programs are rebuilding refugee identities by giving them a space to honor their history and fight for the present.

In the Mae Hong Son Province in Thailand, A.R.T. visited two Burmese refugee camps. The initial program that A.R.T. started with the International Rescue Committee was in 2003. Each program starts small, but the idea quickly grows. Burmese youth learned traditional music and dance with their elders. The refugees reconnected with what they lost in fleeing their homes. Currently, the refugees teach these programs on their own. A.R.T. empowered the refugees to keep their traditions alive, passing on strength from generation to generation.

Looking Ahead

Through its programs, A.R.T. has been instrumental in helping refugees maintain their cultural identity and rebuild their sense of belonging. By providing opportunities for artistic expression and intergenerational connections, A.R.T. supports refugees in preserving their traditions and passing them on to future generations. These initiatives have had a profound impact on refugee communities, fostering resilience and empowering individuals to honor their history while embracing their present circumstances.

– Ellie Bruce
Photo: Flickr