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Healing Trauma Through Art: Mural Arts Helps Refugees Share Their Stories and Ease Their Transition to Philadelphia

Some 8,000 miles away from the lush jungles of Burma, a group of women sit around a table in South Philadelphia learning American civics. They’re surrounded by a colorful world map and a large woven “Welcome” sign.

“What do we show loyalty to when we say the ‘Pledge of Allegiance?’” an English as a Second Language, or ESL, teacher asks.

The four women struggle before one finally answers.

“The flag,” she says through broken English.

The adult students gathered in South Philly’s Southeast by Southeast center are members of the Karen people, an ethnic minority from the country now named Myanmar but which the refugees and their advocates still call Burma.

The region remains embroiled in what some say is the world’s longest-running civil war. Currently, there about 300,000 Karen people still living in Burma and roughly 1,000 Karenni in Philadelphia, according to Southeast by Southeast program manager Melissa Fogg. 

Since the 1940s, the Karen people have struggled to gain independence from the Burmese government. Some have resorted to guerrilla tactics. Others have formed political groups, such as the Karen National Union and the Karen National Liberation Army.

Those who escaped left behind war and genocide, fleeing to neighboring Thailand only to wait upwards of 10 years in refugee camps.

“Dogs would be barking and that would be the only warning they had that the military was coming to essentially kill everyone,” Fogg says. “To get to the United States, they essentially win the lottery.”

The Karen people who resettled in Philadelphia were designated refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which identifies and relocates oppressed people from all over the world.

The vetting process can be grueling, Fogg says. Potential refugees must receive security and medical screenings, and each case is investigated to determine need and accuracy. 

Only refugees with family members in other countries who are willing to advocate for them can choose where to live. Otherwise, people enter a lottery system and wait their turn.

“They can end up in the United States or in Canada, in Philadelphia or in Arkansas,” Fogg says.

South Philadelphia’s Karen population mostly resettled near 8th and Snyder streets starting around 2011. Few, if any, knew much about the city before moving here. Now, they attend daily citizenship and language classes at places like Southeast by Southeast, a small space south of the bustling Vietnamese corridor along Washington Avenue.

Settling in a new city thousands of miles away from anything familiar can be a difficult and painful process. Many refugees experienced significant trauma in their homeland or during their journey to a better life. In some cultures, a word for depression does not even exist, Fogg says.

To alleviate the transition for refugees and to shine a light on their place in Philadelphia, Mural Arts is preparing to launch a short film series called “Making Home Movies” that paired filmmakers and storytellers with refugees from all over the world.

The series, which premieres next weekend at the Philadelphia Film Center, features ESL students from Belarus, Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Nepal, Syria, Ukraine and other countries. The shorts explore the language and imagery of home, both the one the refugees left behind and the new one being created in Philadelphia.

Immigration policy within the United States has changed much since the Karen refugees starting coming to Philadelphia in 2011. Backed by the U.S. Supreme Court, President Donald Trump's administration is making it harder for people to resettle anywhere in the United States.

“Making Home Movies” aims to influence the current narrative about immigration and Philadelphia’s newest residents, according to Fogg.

“The refugees we work with are the most kind, generous people who have had unimaginable, horrible things happen to them. They are just so happy to be in America and to be safe,” she says. “They just want to be welcomed and accepted.”

Since March, filmmaker Shira Walinsky, who co-founded Southeast by Southeast with Fogg, has worked with refugee students from Nepal, Bhutan and Burma to create three of the "Making Home Movies" shorts. She says the stories ultimately tell a tale of resiliency and hope for a better future, but also give refugees the opportunity to shed trauma through art.

Some of her favorite moments while shooting the films happened during spontaneous moments shared with refugee families over dinner or home visits. Walinsky remembers hearing a woman sing a poem about leaving Bhutan. The song was not rehearsed and lingered in Walinsky's mind long after. It eventually found its way into one of the films, she says.

“New communities bring cultural assets,” Walinsky says. “Everyone needs to hear these stories.”

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