“Many of us have been guilty of putting these people in a box—that this is what a refugee looks like, this is what their experiences will be, this is what they’ll want to tell people about,” Danielle Hernandez, the coordinator for the refugee youth mentoring program through Catholic Charities, explained as we sat down to coffee with Zahra Marwan. Hernandez and local artist Marwan are hard at work on a creative project that aims to throw light on the diverse experiences and identities of refugee children who live in Albuquerque. These are not necessarily the stories that you might expect. “I don’t think [that] in their minds they think of their entire story being tied up into this element of being a refugee. [Their stories are about] all these other things that are larger or smaller or the same size as the part of them that has had that experience,” Hernandez illumined. “In my experience, the kids always talk about these really minute details of their stories, like what they used to eat or someone they miss,” Marwan reiterated. “I think we all have this idea of what a refugee is, but most of them [are] just little kids that want to watch cartoons and hang out with their friends.”In her role at Catholic Charities, Hernandez works closely with refugee children and their families, and she started to hear a common grievance from them—that the ESL classes the children found themselves in were taught in Spanish, and all the materials they were given to learn the English language and grapple with their new home were geared toward learners with backgrounds and identities that were very different from most of their own. So, Hernandez decided that she would begin to develop materials in which the children might see themselves reflected more clearly. Hernandez enlisted the help of Marwan—an artist who frequently explores her own identity as both American and Kuwaiti, and her memories of both of these desert homes in her work—to help her collect the stories of children who have come to Albuquerque as refugees from around the world and compile them into a series of books. Currently, Hernandez and Marwan are hard at work on three illustrated books that elucidate the stories that children from Iraq (one Kurdish, one Arabic-speaking) and Afghanistan wanted to share, each of which will be translated on the page into English, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, and Dari or Farsi. “And if I can fit them on the page, maybe French and Kurdish,” Hernandez added with a laugh as the list grew. “The idea is to translate them into the languages that our clients actually use,” and to communicate the richness of their stories and cultures, both apart and together with their experiences as refugees.“When I tell people that I’m from Kuwait, people sometimes say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ … So I can only imagine what these kids must feel when they say they’re from Afghanistan or Iraq,” Marwan said, as we discussed the dominant narratives that most Americans understand about these countries—predominately stories of violence and conflict. “Because when we ask, ‘What’s it like being from Kabul?’ The kids talk about the apple trees they had in front of their house. It must be a relief to talk about things like apple trees instead of women’s rights [when] you’re an 8-year-old.” Evocative details like this are what Marwan illuminates in her illustrations—layering cultural symbols with intimate memories, she creates rich, elaborate images with ink, watercolor and gouache that contain volumes all by themselves. It’s details like the apple trees in Kabul or, say, the tender minutiae a young girl from Iraq wanted to share about her dearly missed cousin, Rose, who lives thousands of miles away in Baghdad, that make these stories so compelling. Through these stories and Marwan’s accompanying art, readers of any background are given an eye into the lived experiences of people from places that are more complicated and beautiful than what’s shown on the nightly news. It also reveals the sometimes complicated experience of living in the US after fleeing one’s home country.“I think what people need to know most about refugees is that it takes a really extreme set of events to make you actually want to leave your home,” Hernandez elaborated. “I think there’s a lot of pressure to accept [the narrative of] ‘You’re so lucky that you get to live here now,’ and to condemn what’s happened in their home countries. … But for these people that is still their home, and they miss it.” That’s why, without doing much more than asking for a story, Hernandez and Marwan record what some might find unexpected—all the happy memories. “We tell them they can just talk about their homes … It doesn’t have to be about the war. [They] don’t have to condemn any part of their life or the place they lived or the people they loved. They tell us about positive things.”For now, Marwan and Hernandez are still in the process of collecting stories and creating illustrations, but they are keeping their fingers crossed that they’ll be able to do an initial print in February. Meanwhile, they are also working with an Iraqi Chaldean family to create a fourth book for the series. You can connect with Hernandez through Facebook and Instagram (@refugeeyouthmentoringproject) to keep attuned to the development of the ongoing project, and you can get a feel for Marwan’s beautifully detailed art at her upcoming solo exhibition, opening on Feb. 4, from 6-8pm at El Chante: Casa de Cultura, titled On Dreams and Memories.
Artist Zahra Marwan unpacks her experiences as Kuwaiti and New Mexican