Four first-year Penn Law School students created a refugee art exhibit to combat stereotypes surrounding refugees.
"More Than: Beyond the Refugee Stereotype," which opened Monday in Penn Law's Haaga Lounge, includes artwork such as accordion books made with paper cutting and silk screening, Arabic calligraphy, and photographs provided by Catzie Vilayphonh, who directs a local art initiative known as "Laos in the House." The exhibit's opening reception featured speeches and performances from artists and activists within the refugee community.
Event organizer and first-year Law student Cassandra Dula said she developed the project last semester along with fellow first-year law students Benjamin Bolnick, Maddi Gray, and Adam Garnick. The four were selected by Penn Law's International Refugee Assistance Project, a pro bono project that helps students learn how to provide legal assistance to refugees. Every year, the project selects a group of first-year representatives to host an event.
"I work on a case with someone who is trying to get refugee status," Dula said. "I think it's important to know that there are people on the other side of the work we do."
Bolnick, who is also a 2016 College graduate, said he became interested in refugee issues last year while studying for a master's degree in mental health at King's College London.
"Some of my patients were refugees, and I became very close to them throughout the year," Bolnick said. "I saw the humanity behind the word 'refugee.'"
Bolnick said his initial inspiration came from a conversation he had with Nora Elmarzouky, the program manager for Swarthmore College's Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary Project. Learning about the Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary Project, which holds art workshops with resettled refugees, made Bolnick realize the importance of looking beyond refugee stereotypes.
"Especially in the past few years, the topic of refugees have become so politicized and polarized both here and in the world," Bolnick said. "It's all the more necessary now more than ever to focus on the human element of refugees and to keep that on the forefront of our minds whenever we are having these political discussions."
At the exhibit's opening reception, some speakers included Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania Executive Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson, Iraqi artist Yaroub Al-Obaidi, and College junior Sonari-Nnamdi Chidi, creator of the short documentary "Shattering Refuge."
The highlight of the evening came when Ndeen Al-Barqawi, a 17-year-old Philadelphia poet originally from Palestine, performed a spoken word piece titled "Dear Homeland."
"Dear homeland, I give you these words in place of the silence that Israel has forced upon you," Barqawi said. "When everything started to look like a battleground, we shifted our gaze to the ocean hoping to find salvation. Boats were made of our siblings' bones, our father's last breath our windsail, our blood and sweat the ocean, our mother's back against the stubborn wave, we arrived at the outskirts of the U.S.A."
The exhibit was sponsored by Penn Law's International Refugee Assistance Project, Penn Law & the Arts, International Human Rights Association, Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project, Penn Undergrad Refugee Empowerment, Penn Middle East Center, Penn Medicine Refugee Women's Clinic, Penn FilmAid, and Latham & Watkins. It is open March 11 through March 15.
Attendees agreed that the evening gave them a new perspective on refugees.
"I think that Penn students should have a leg up on the plight of refugees in America," said attendee Andrea Mitnick, who came because of her involvement in HIAS. "I hope that they get a sense, and this is trite, that they are no different from you and me."