On December 10th, 2015, Tecumseh Elementary School paused to celebrate Human Rights Day and to consider the plight of Syrian refugees. If you had a chance to read the Welcoming Syrian Refugees blog (Dec. 2015), you will remember that Marion Collins was reading Hannah’s Suitcase with her students and we had the idea to create peace art with the old wooden suitcase that my paternal Grandmother brought to Canada in 1947 to start a new chapter of life with her four young children. With the help of the grant from Promoting a Culture of Peace for Children Society, the suitcase has become an inspiration for representing ideas through art, reading, writing, listening, speaking and caring.
One side of the suitcase is decorated with messages of welcome to the Syrian refugees. The other sides are decorated with Jackson Pollock inspired art by Grade 3 students. Each colour represents each individual in Canada with all of our similarities and differences. The finished masterpiece is the representation of all of us coming together to create something beautiful. Tanya Conley’s students also made flags of the countries of origin of Tecumseh students and of the suitcase. A local artist, Larkyn Froese, came into help the Grade 3’s with applying the flags on the project. Grade 6 students wrote messages of welcome on fabric squares and sewed them on items of clothing to be displayed coming out of the suitcase.
The artwork became a catalyst for more questions and an inspiration for the reading and writing of Tecumseh students. With the help of a grant from ReadingBC (The British Columbia chapter of the International Literacy Association –ILA), Ms. Collins continued to expand the project to include a literacy component with the entire school. The experience of leaving home and family behind is a difficult experience as an immigrant and as a refugee. Many of the parents in our school community have given up good jobs in their home country and work hard, often with more than one job, to provide better opportunities for their children in Canada. Ms. Collins spearheaded a writing project with intermediate students to interview their parents and discover family stories of hardship and triumph. Several albums have been filled with the interviews and photographs for display with the suitcase.
This same family history vein was pursued by Ms. Conley’s HumanEYES art based initiative that celebrates the diverse life experiences of young people throughout the Vancouver, Coast Salish ancestral lands. This project documented inter-generational and inter-cultural storytelling and celebrates the importance of family and maintaining cultural roots. The project culminated with an intergenerational cookbook filled with recipes, art and family photographs of her 4th graders that has been included in the suitcase as well.
Ms. Collins, her enthusiasm and the desire of staff to get involved resulted in almost all of the classrooms in the school taking part in the project. Several classes stopped to consider the notion of taking flight in war-torn areas with very few belongings. They learned many refugees leave home with a house key in the hope their home will survive the war or as a memory of what was. Several intermediate classes of students designed hamsa hands, an old and still popular amulet for magical protection from the envious or evil eye in many Middle East and North African cultures. They created keychains with the hasma hand, a key and a fimo sculpture of what they pack if they needed to leave home in a hurry. Primary students wrote and drew about what they would bring and have created albums of their ideas for inclusion in the suitcase as well.
The #WelcomeSyrianRefugees project was first featured at the United Way luncheon for Syrian Refugees that was hosted at Tecumseh Elementary school this Spring. The most common reaction from the adults viewing the project has been tears. In the barrage of negatives on mainstream media and social media, there is comfort that Canadian children are welcoming their Syrian children with open arms. There is also the hope that there are many Canadian adults who are doing exactly the same thing.
Note: The title #WelcomeSyrianRefugees came from the Twitter handle of the same name that expresses messages of welcome not just to Syrian refugees. This project will be on display at the Vancouver School Board during July and August 2016. Our goal is for it to be displayed at a variety of venues as a way to warmly welcome refugees as they begin a new chapter of their lives in Canada.