Refugees use art to heal the pain of their past

Imagine you’re a refugee newly arrived in Canada, frightened, stressed and unsure of your next step. Handed a paintbrush, a point-and-shoot camera and an arsenal of vocabulary in a new language, what might you produce?


For a group of women and girls waiting to be granted asylum in Toronto, the fruit of that experiment last summer was a remarkable 40-page book of photography, painting and poetry, plus an exhibit at the Tinto Coffee House that will go on to Toronto City Hall and Metro Hall in June during a celebration of refugee rights.


But more than that, for these women the opportunity to express themselves relieved stress and helped heal the trauma of being displaced from their homelands.


The book, Shukar Lulugi — “Beautiful Flower” in the Romany language — came as a surprise even to the 17 participants, age 12 to 56, because none of them originally wanted to take part in the project organized at the Sojourn House refugee shelter.


That changed when they started learning about drawing, painting, writing and photography from community artists with Toronto’s Red Tree artists’ collective.

“I thought my life ended when I left my country,” said Margarita Valdez, a Mexican lawyer who sought refuge in Canada with her husband and their 14-year-old son in 2006. “But creative art has awakened my feelings again.”

The transformation from hopelessness to optimism is reflected in the women’s works, said Red Tree co-ordinator Lynn Hutchinson.

“When they first started coming to the workshops, their paintings, photos and views were very dark and grey. They were reluctant to do anything,” Hutchinson recalled.

“But then they started to open up, share their experience,” she paused, pointing to the photos and colourful paintings mounted on the red brick wall of the café. “Look at the vibrant colour in their paintings now, and you can see a sense of hope and joy.”

In their painting class, the women were asked to draw landscapes from the rooftop of the Queen Street shelter, or to paint their hands or favourite fruits, like Melena Yohannes’ “ugly mango.”

“Many of us never painted before. We aren’t Picassos, but it doesn’t matter,” said Yohannes, 21, who fled Eritrea under official persecution because of her Pentecostal faith.

Standing beside a framed photo she took of her toddler son, Adam, Jamila — a Moroccan who fled an abusive husband and asked that her last name not be used — said she never thought she could write, at least not in English. But she enjoyed the simple wordplays in the writing class.

“As refugees, it’s hard to let it out. It’s nice to know that I wasn’t alone in my tragic experience,” said the 30-year-old, all smiles now.

  • The women’s book, funded by the Toronto Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts, can be purchased for $10. E-mail info@sojournhouse.orgor call 416-864-0515, ext. 242. The exhibit is free to view until tomorrow at Tinto Coffee House on Roncesvalles Avenue. It then moves to City Hall April 3; Metro Hall on June 4.