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Shapshots Show Immigrant and Refugee Experiences

Exhibit Features Photos, Essays by Students

Immigrant and refugee students at the Catalina Magnet High School in Tucson, Ariz., don’t turn to a dictionary when they can’t think of the English word to express what they’re thinking.

Instead, they whip out a digital camera.

“Sometimes, you want to say something, but the words you can’t think of, so you can take it in a picture,” said Sabir Kenyawani, one of 46 advanced English Language Learning students enrolled in the school’s new Finding Voice Project.

Kenyawani, a refugee from east Africa, is one of six immigrant and refugee students from the program visiting the Capitol this week to display photographs and writing, as well as to highlight immigration and refugee policy issues.

Finding Voice was launched about a year ago to promote literacy and give refugee and immigrant students an outlet to express the challenges they face. About a quarter of the students at the magnet school are in the English as a Second Language program, and 10 percent are refugees.

Throughout the school year the students present their pieces in a variety of forums, including local offices and bus terminals, as well as school assemblies and classrooms, where they explain what they were trying to express and receive feedback from their peers. Educators say incorporating an artistic element into language lessons engages and invests students in their studies.

“It’s so profound, it’s amazing,” ESL teacher Julie Kasper said of the students’ progress under the new program. “The students are able to see a connection between the learning and their lives.”

The photographs and text focus on self-selected cultural issues, ranging from teen pregnancy in Somalian communities to preserving traditions and memories from home while living abroad.

“Here I am in America, but still something is missing and was also missing [in Pakistan] and makes my life incomplete,” said Sadaf Hakeem, whose family fled war in Afghanistan and lived in Pakistan before moving to the United States, during a Tuesday afternoon briefing about the project. “What was missing was my family, my culture and my religion.”

The goal of the project is not just to use the interdisciplinary curriculum to improve literacy skills, but to build confidence and address cultural assimilation issues through public speaking and visual literacy, educators said.

“What I really focus on is the language of photography and how do you convey passion and metaphors through the camera,” said Josh Schachter, a Tucson-based photographer and educator who co-teaches the program. “It’s not about me wanting them to become photographers. I want them to become critical analyzers of the world.”

Incorporating photography into the classroom also gives the students an outlet to convey emotions.

Many of the students come from war-torn nations and spent years living in bare-bones conditions at refugee camps. Most have also been separated from family members and friends. Many had never taken a photograph before the class.

“Most of the people, what catches their attention is the photograph. Once you have the writing with the photograph, people can understand what you mean and what kind of person you are,” said Abdi Omar, whose family emigrated from Somalia about eight years ago. “It’s what I see and what I thought about and what I intended to say.”

Though the students express joy and gratitude for the opportunities and resources available to them in America, themes of boredom and isolation associated with adjusting to life in a foreign country dominate their work.

“I don’t have a friend in my neighborhood,” reads the first line of an essay excerpt displayed above the work of Hawa Bealue, who moved to Tucson from a Nigerian refugee camp in 2005 after fleeing war in her home of Liberia.

But even though the emotional toll of living without her mother is often enough to make her want to move back home, Bealue, who is staying with her uncle, said that “since we came here, every day was like a dream come true.” She said she hopes her project can help show how neighborhoods can become like families to support people in situations similar to her own.

Local community leaders and lawmakers have rallied around the project, saying that the “human face” presented by the students’ work is a strong reminder of need to reform refugee and immigrant policy.

“It’s not a political message, it’s a human message. It’s changing the nature of the discussion from policy and positions to humanity,” said Tucson Vice Mayor Nina Trasoff, later adding, “This is a perspective on immigration that the people who are making the decisions just don’t see, and they need to.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who helped organize the trip after visiting the class last fall, said he found viewing immigrant and refugee life through the viewpoint of these “young people with an honest perspective” very powerful.

“They make you cry, some of the students when they are sitting around and telling their stories … It just rips you up,” Grijalva said.

Forty photos and accompanying excerpts from the students’ final projects are on display through Friday in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda. A book of their work is also available for purchase at

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