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Voices Fall-Winter 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Report from the Field — A Dialogue on Immigrant and Refugee Issues” by Laura R. Marcus and William Westerman here.
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Voices FW2006


Volume 32

Report from the Field: A Dialogue on Immigrant and Refugee Issues by Laura R. Marcus and William Westerman with Introduction by Eileen Condon

On November 4, 2005, more than twenty folklorists, folk artists, and culture workers gathered at the Brooklyn Arts Council offices on Washington Street in Brooklyn for the New York Folklore Society’s Folk Arts Forum on Immigrant/Refugee Issues. The forum consisted of presentations and dialogue related to our many forms of work and experience with immigrant and refugee arts, artists, and communities, in New York and elsewhere. Laura R. Marcus (immigrant and refugee arts consultant and researcher) served as our keynote speaker, with William Westerman (director of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum in Chicago) as special guest discussant. Open discussion followed these presentations.

The collective thinking and passionate energy generated at this forum led to an almost immediate decision by the organizers and presenters and the editors of Voices to (re)present the heart of the exchange by publishing a partial transcript in an issue of Voices. Transcriptions in this issue, abridged and edited by Marcus and Westerman, allow Voices readers to revisit and share in the forum’s exchange. With the American Folklore Society’s 2006 annual meeting on the theme of “Homelands and Diasporas” on the horizon, Marcus’s and Westerman’s practical descriptions and theoretical analyses of public folklore initiatives that honor, heal, and empower displaced traditional artists in the United States are timely, emerging as they do within a period of increased national pressures and restrictions—economic, political, and legal— upon immigrants to the United States.

Laura Marcus and William Westerman would like to thank the New York Folklore Society and forum organizers Ellen McHale and Eileen Condon for the invitation to speak, and Kay Turner and the Brooklyn Arts Council who served as the Folk Arts Forum’s gracious hosts. Marcus extends thanks to William Westerman, Amy Skillman, Nancy Nusz, Jeffery MacDonald, Leila Childs, Phyllis Laners, and— most importantly—the artists with whom she has worked. Marcus also acknowledges the support of several agencies: the Arts for New Immigrants Program, created jointly in 1999 by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) in Portland, Oregon, and the Oregon Historical Society Folklife Program (OFP); the Fund for Folk Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Idaho Commission on the Arts (ICA) Folk and Traditional Arts Program; and the Institute for Cultural Partnerships (ICP) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Some of Westerman’s ideas were developed for a presentation at the annual meeting of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Boise, Idaho, in September 2005. Westerman expresses his gratitude to Laura Marcus, Andrea Graham, Barry Bergey, and the National Endowment for the Arts for the invitation to present there. Finally, the New York Folklore Society thanks all the participants in the Folk Arts Forum on Immigrant/Refugee Issues for sharing their time, work, and ideas to benefit the field.
[Bios for Marcus and Westerman appear in the right facing column of this page].

— Eileen Condon

Baskets made by Eritrean traditional artist Rigat Tesfasion
Baskets made by Eritrean traditional artist Rigat Tesfasion. In Eritrea, these baskets are valued as winnowing trays, food-storage and serving vessels, beer-making filters, jewelry boxes, and money banks. Eritrean baskets are traditionally made from natural fibers, but the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia has rendered these materials scarce. In some cases, as pictured here, basketweavers substitute colored yarns. Courtesy of the Arts for New Immigrants Program. Photo: Evan Schneider, Oregon Historical Society

The Best of Everything:
A Collaborative Approach to Refugee and Immigrant Traditional Arts

My work with refugee and immigrant arts began in the Arts for New Immigrants Program at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) in Portland, Oregon. IRCO is a multiethnic, community-based nonprofit agency that helps incoming refugees and immigrants to settle in the Portland area. Beginning in 1989, collaborative folk arts and heritage projects undertaken by IRCO and the Oregon Historical Society Folklife Program (OFP) revealed that many refugees and immigrants were bringing traditional art forms and skills to the United States that could be supported through the OFP’s programs, and more broadly through Portland’s vibrant arts community. Yet because of linguistic and cultural differences, as well as IRCO’s strong focus on employment, most of these artists flew under the radar. In 1999, the Arts for New Immigrants Program was created jointly by IRCO and the OFP to establish the steady presence of a folklorist at IRCO.

It was my good fortune to be the Arts for New Immigrants Program’s founding coordinator. After four years in the position, I moved to the Fund for Folk Culture, where as program associate I administered two grant programs that served refugee and immigrant artists and community organizations, among others. During my two years at the fund, we coordinated several national interdisciplinary gatherings that focused on developing support for refugee and immigrant arts in the United States. Most recently, I conducted fieldwork with refugee and immigrant traditional artists in the Boise area for the Idaho Commission on the Arts (ICA) Folk and Traditional Arts Program. This work included interfacing with local refugee and immigrant service agencies to foster mutual awareness and the potential for collaboration with the ICA.

These diverse roles have provided the day-to- day experience of working directly with refugee and immigrant artists and communities, as well as the bird’s-eye view of a program officer and national gatherings coordinator. The common denominator has been recognition of the gap between the social services and the arts and the need to bridge this professional divide through collaborative work, as Bill Westerman has suggested. This awareness inspired the Building Cultural Bridges project, which I am coordinating with the Institute for Cultural Partnerships in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Building Cultural Bridges is a national interdisciplinary project that links the arts and social services to build support for cultural continuity and artistic growth among refugees and immigrants in the United States. I will focus here on my work at IRCO, as it is a replicable model that illustrates collaborative possibilities.

Like many social service agencies serving refugees and immigrants, IRCO strives to develop self-sufficiency and cultural literacy among its clients. Among other services, IRCO offers six levels of English as a second language (ESL) instruction, including workplace ESL; job development and placement; computer and transportation training; and specialized programs for youth, women, elders, and victims of domestic violence. I worked side by side with a staff of 130 people, representing twenty-two different cultures. Many of IRCO’s staff and board were themselves former clients and thus often had a personal understanding of their clients’ cultures, as well as of the experience of being a newcomer. I worked in the field daily, which was not only a rich ethnographic and personal experience, but also the best strategy for continued access to the artists and communities IRCO was trying to serve.

A planning grant preceded my arrival at IRCO, providing a road map for the program’s first year, during which I was to develop its infrastructure and establish it as a going concern. When I came on board, my supervisor— IRCO’s development director and a cultural anthropologist—took me aside to suggest that my first task as arts coordinator was to apply my ethnographic training to understanding the culture of the agency, so that I would learn to work harmoniously with my colleagues and their programs.

Needless to say, as the lone arts person in a social service agency, I was something of an odd duck. Some staff members welcomed the arts program as a reprieve from the mundane and sometimes disheartening reality of helping newly arrived refugees and immigrants—many coming from repressive or war-torn situations—cope with life in a new country. These colleagues considered my attention to their clients’ cultures and expressive arts uplifting and exciting, and ultimately healing and vital. Others saw me as a bit of an interloper, who was nurturing unrealistic hopes among their clients and undermining their attempts to find them “real” jobs. Over time, they came to believe my reassurances that the arts were something that people could do in their spare time, sometimes as a means of making extra money, but most of all as a way to bolster cultural pride and well-being. It was essential to work cooperatively with my colleagues, as they were the initial link to the artists. On many occasions, they also kindly served as impromptu interpreters.

As I met newly arrived artists from around the world, it became clear that in some cultures the arts enjoy a more hallowed place than they do in the United States, as in the case, for example, of the Cuban tre player who had at one time played with members of the Buena Vista Social Club or the Russian painter who had been a public library employee in his home country, where artists were regularly hired to beautify buildings. Additionally, in many cultures folk and traditional arts and folklife are integrally woven into the fabric of daily life. An Angolan basket weaver, for example, made her baskets for daily use in her home country and in the refugee camps where she and her family lived for twenty years. Decontextualized in the U.S., her baskets became “art,” useful in a new way, as she could draw upon her traditional knowledge to teach others (including her grandchildren, who were not born in the family’s native country) about her culture and to earn modest honoraria by demonstrating her work. For some—like an Iraqi calligrapher, a Togolese seamstress, and the Zhostovo decorative painter from the Caucasus—their art forms were also their vocations. I knew that I could not easily find them such jobs in the United States—and was careful not to tread on the job developers’ turf—but I looked for ways to translate the skills that people brought with them into possibilities.

Women's collective at Meheba Refugee Camp in Zambia
Angolan basketweaver and midwife Valeriana Bandwa, far left, holding her grandson, circa 1978. With her are members of the women’s collective she founded at the Meheba Refugee Camp, Soluezi, Zambia. The collective provided an opportunity for women living in the refugee camp to learn traditional art forms and to share and market their work. Courtesy of the Arts for New Immigrants Program; photo from the artist’s collection.

Regardless of the culture or tradition, the common thread was the art form’s significance in a person’s home country and the hope of carrying it on in a new place. I was continually amazed by the quantities of musical instruments, tools, handmade linens, special cooking equipment, and more that people managed to transport to this country. The precious suitcase room allotted to these treasures spoke to the importance of traditional arts in people’s lives. Along with these items came more intangible resources: the knowledge of how to do things, the memories that connect people with home, and the desire to weave continuity, comfort, and meaning into life in a new country.

At IRCO, I met artists with vastly diverse artistic and cultural traditions, educational and professional skills. Some objected to being labeled as refugee or immigrant artists, preferring to be known by their art work or cultural backgrounds. “Refugee” and “immigrant” are overarching terms, indicating that an individual or cultural community has relocated from another country, some out of necessity, others by choice. We can speak of refugee and immigrant artists, but it is important to remember that people cannot be completely defined or understood by these names. Even within a particular cultural community, politics and personal experience highlight the individuality of each person.

The cultural, artistic, and personal diversity among the artists with whom I worked at IRCO cast the Arts for New Immigrants Program in the role of a switchboard, as suggested in the program’s mission statement:
The IRCO Arts for New Immigrants Program assists refugee and immigrant artists in continuing their cultural traditions and artistic careers in the Portland area, while connecting the artists and their communities with the broader Portland public, so that the city’s cultural life and overall well-being are enhanced through the arts.
As I worked with cultural community organizations and one-on-one with artists, my job description became to 1) identify refugee and immigrant artists as they enter the country, 2) assess their arts-related needs, 3) link them to the resources they need to continue their cultural traditions or artistic careers in their new home, and 4) develop educational programming through which the public can learn about incoming refugee and immigrant cultures through their traditional arts. The resources that people needed often included specialized materials and supplies or musical instruments, space, and opportunities to exhibit, perform, or sell their work. Over time, our network of Portland-area arts organizations, galleries and shops, arts supply stores, festivals, and art schools became another valued resource.

As I established the program’s day-to-day operations, I was required by the structure of arts funding in the U.S. to develop projects. The projects emanated from needs and concerns I identified among artists: the desire to continue their work and traditions and, in some cases, to share them with the public; cultural preservation; and economic and professional development. Our first project, Arts Opening Doors, consisted of two exhibits, a concert, and a series of youth traditional arts classes (YTAC). The exhibits featured a Vietnamese silk painter, an Iraqi calligrapher, a Zhostovo painter, an Eritrean basket weaver, an Iranian miniatur painter, an Ethiopian icon painter, Afghani and Ukrainian embroiderers, and a Togolese seamstress. The artists were invited to sell their work, and most took advantage of this opportunity.

IRCO sewing circle
Opening night for the In My Country traveling exhibit at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in Portland, Oregon. The IRCO sewing circle: (front, left to right) Togolese seamstress Veronique Langlidja, Eritrean basketweaver Rigat Tesfasion, Togolese instrument maker Victorine Todo Ablavi; (second row, left to right) Angolan basketweaver Valeriana Bandwa and Bosnian weaver, crocheter, and knitter Tima Mustafic; (third row, left to right) Afghani embroiderer Mabi Haqiqi, Mozambican seamstress Maria Alves, Chadian crocheter Fatime Ousmane. Courtesy of the Arts for New Immigrants Program. Photo: Leila Childs

Being an artist in the United States can be challenging. Before a newcomer artist can pursue his or her artistic career or cultural tradition, there are often linguistic, cultural, and economic barriers to overcome. Two of the obstacles I encountered most frequently were language and what could be called the “translation” factor. Often an artist’s avocation does not exist per se in the U.S.; other times, artists may be required to pursue additional education or licensing in order to continue their work. In the latter case, language, time, and financial constraints often made getting the additional training difficult, if not impossible. Two of the artists showing their work in the Arts Opening Doors exhibits had been teachers in their home countries. One had been a professor of art and architecture in Saigon, Vietnam, and the other once had her own art school in Isfahan, Iran. Both felt they lacked the linguistic ability to teach art in the United States, and so they made their livings in service-based jobs: one worked in a Veterans Administration hospital cafeteria, and the other started her own daycare business. They did their artwork on the side and participated in exhibits whenever possible. I often wondered if connecting these artists with local art schools and academic departments, where their unique skills could be appreciated, might help them find community and more meaningful work.

Arts Opening Doors also produced a concert by Roberto, a Cuban nueva trova musician. In Cuba and Costa Rica, Roberto had worked in television and film. The concert was his first public appearance in Portland. The Arts for New Immigrants Program’s early infrastructure included the Artists Assisting Artists program, a volunteer-based system that paired established Portland artists as mentors with newcomer artists. Roberto’s partnership with a local folk musician ultimately resulted in their playing together in an ensemble. When Roberto and his family arrived in Portland in 2000, he spoke very little English, and worked at a factory job. Today he speaks fluent English and, for the past few years, has been working for a local cable access television station. Moving beyond the barriers of language and professional retraining, Roberto has reestablished his creative and professional life in a new country.

The Arts Opening Doors YTAC were a response to the concern among parents that their children retain an understanding of the family’s native culture, even as they learn to excel in the U.S. school system and to socialize comfortably with classmates. This dual identity can be a tough balancing act, often pulling young people in different directions. The classes gave students a place to explore a part of their cultural identity with peers and a master traditional artist from their own culture.

The classes were administered through an application process, much like a folk arts apprenticeship program. Developing the applications in several languages—and in some cases, assisting applicants in filling them out— was a time-consuming and costly process, but ultimately provided more effective outreach. We also conducted fieldwork with applicants to facilitate presenting their applications to the panel. The panel was composed of a folklorist, a refugee and immigrant services specialist, and several refugee and immigrant artists. The YTAC stipend supported an honorarium for the instructor, meeting space, materials and supplies, and transportation. Honoraria for artists who taught, demonstrated, or performed their work were based on the going rates listed by the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), the Portland metro-area arts organization. I often received calls from people who were seeking international artists to perform or demonstrate at community events. Part of my role as IRCO’s arts coordinator was to advocate for fair compensation for artists’ work, as many requests were for volunteer appearances.

The YTAC included classes in Hmong and Ukrainian embroidery, Haitian drumming, Iu Mien paper cutting, Russian folk painting, Bosnian traditional music, and Oromo performing and oral traditions. The classes varied in size from five to forty-five students. As word spread, there was increased demand for the classes. We found funding for the program’s second year, at the end of which IRCO hosted a showcase where students and teachers presented their work.

Finding ways to sustain successful programs continues to be an imperative. When a program takes root with artists and cultural communities, it is difficult to explain to them why it is ending. We hoped YTAC would ultimately become an annual program, but it was short-lived due to the difficulty of securing operating support. Some cultural communities found ways to continue the classes on their own, which was a great outcome. During the four years I worked at IRCO, the Arts for New Immigrants Program received generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fund for Folk Culture, the Oregon Arts Commission, the Oregon Council for the Humanities, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the Allen Foundation for the Arts, the Collins Foundation, and the Tides Foundation. The scarcity of operating support and the dependence upon project-based funding was nevertheless a continual challenge—one that faces many nonprofit arts programs across the country.

The second Arts for New Immigrants Program project was a multicultural, intergenerational sewing circle. One day an IRCO job developer asked me to talk with one of her clients, a Kosovar Albanian woman who did beautiful embroidery and crochet, who was having a hard time finding work because of her traumatic history and resulting emotional issues. After meeting her a few times at the agency, I visited the artist at home, bringing with me a box of discontinued yarns donated by a local crafts shop. The artist was pleased with the supplies, but even more so, it seemed, with having company. I realized that there must be many such women around Portland, isolated at home by language and the unfamiliarity of living in a new culture. Knowing that handwork and sewing circles are universal phenomena, I began inviting fiber artists to attend regular sewing circles. The idea took hold, and ultimately the sewing circle included artists from Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Chad, Eritrea, Mozambique, Togo, and Ukraine. Their art forms encompassed basketry, embroidery, weaving, beadwork, crocheting, knitting, and sewing. Out of the sewing circle we developed the In My Country project, which included a traveling exhibit, catalog, video, and public programs.

As the group grew, we enlisted volunteer drivers to provide transportation to and from meetings. The artists’ children and grandchildren delighted in attending the sewing circle, where they learned their own and other cultural art forms. These young people often helped as interpreters. The group received generous donations of sewing machines, looms, yarn, handwork materials, and an honorary membership in the Portland Handweavers Guild. Because English was the lingua franca among women from so many different cultures, the sewing circle was a place for people to practice their language skills without the discomfort they often felt in public situations. Despite linguistic differences, communication among the women seemed to take place almost magically because of the sense of family that developed among them. Happily, the sewing circle met across the hall from IRCO’s daycare room, so we had access to a separate space with toys for children too young to participate in the sewing circle. Having childcare close by was especially helpful for women who felt culturally or personally uncomfortable leaving their children with strangers.

Seamstress Veronique Langlidja in Togo
Traditional seamstress Veronique Langlidja, right, during her sewing apprenticeship in Togo. Courtesy of the Arts for New Immigrants Program; photo from artist’s collection.
During the group interviews we conducted with each artist, the women were fascinated to learn about the similarities and differences among their experiences and cultures. As it turned out, the interview with the Afghani artist—who was originally from Kandahar— was scheduled to take place at the end of the first week of U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan in 2001. The artist’s children called to warn me that their mother was very upset and might not make it to the interview. Ultimately, she decided to come, bringing mountains of her fine embroidery to share with the group. The opportunity to present her culture’s beauty at a time when she was the object of angry yelling from fellow bus passengers in a language she could not understand was clearly healing. At the end of her interview, she conveyed her fear for family members who remained in Afghanistan and broke down crying. The other women, relating that they had all been through similar situations, gathered around the artist to comfort her.

The interviews provided the raw material for biographical profiles, artifact labels, and thematic texts. The latter synthesized the group’s collective experience, exploring the role of fiber arts in peoples’ lives, their importance in refugee camps as a form of emotional and economic survival, the dynamic of the Portland-based sewing circle, and the need to improvise with new materials and techniques when far from home.

The exhibit opened in Portland and traveled to three venues in rural Oregon communities, including a tribal museum, a cultural center, and a textile center.

At every site, In My Country public programming included open sewing circles, which the public was invited to join for a few hours. Community members brought their knitting, crocheting, embroidery, and other crafts, as well as an interest in learning firsthand about international fiber artists and their traditions. In exchange, the In My Country artists learned about new art forms, such as quilting and Native American regalia making. The open sewing circles were so popular that a local branch of the Multnomah County library in Portland invited the group to hold monthly open circles in their community room. This helped the library to fill a gap in their cultural programming budget and recruited some new library members among the sewing circle artists and their families.

The opportunity for the artists to travel beyond Portland—the only part of the U.S. they had ever seen—proved educational. They were amazed at the contrast between the lush Willamette Valley and eastern Oregon’s arid plains. The women related to the history of conflict and oppression they encountered at the Tamastslikt Cultural Center, the museum of the confederated tribes of the Umatilla in Pendleton, Oregon. The Bosnian artists recognized the Basque sheepherding camp displayed at the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Oregon. All of the artists were stunned to learn of the evacuation and internment of Japanese and Japanese American citizens during World War II through an exhibit at the Four Rivers Cultural Center.

On the way home from the sewing circle’s junket to eastern Oregon, one of the artists relayed through a family member her satisfaction. “Without this project, all I would have known of America is the grocery store and the inside of my apartment. Now I am famous! If you had told me a few years ago that I would have friends from Angola and Bosnia, I would have said that you were crazy. Now these women are my family.”

My last project at IRCO was the Refugee Elders Traditional Arts Project (RETAP). One day my colleagues who ran IRCO’s seniors program invited me to give a presentation about the arts program for their clients. Twice a week, seniors from Bosnia, Romania, Laos (Lao and Hmong), Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and Sudan attended hot lunches at IRCO, where they also learned about health care, legal rights, housing, and so on. The seniors sat with other community members and interpreters at large round tables. At the time, I was preparing the In My Country exhibit, and happened to have an unusual number of artifacts in my office. The seniors passed these items around and clearly enjoyed looking at them. After the presentation, the program coordinators told me that they had never seen the seniors so animated. I suggested that we collaborate on a senior arts project. When we polled the elders on their ideas for an arts project, one Vietnamese gentleman, weary of the day-to-day grind of health issues and other struggles, requested, “Something to make life happy.” At their advanced ages, most of the seniors found it difficult to learn a new language and adjust to an unfamiliar culture.

Many of the IRCO seniors were traditional artists. They began bringing their own work to the lunches. Some Hmong women brought their embroidery, and a Romanian man brought a cap he had made. Another Romanian man seated at the table pointed to his head and said, “Mine? It’s all up here!” He was eager to record his stories. In addition to their desire to have more fun, all of the seniors wanted their grandchildren growing up in the U.S. to retain a sense of their culture, so that they would know who they are. Before, the seniors had remained at their own tables without any intercultural interaction, but as the artwork started appearing at their meetings, they began to mingle.

RETAP trained a multicultural, intergenerational team in documentation skills in order to record the elders’ art forms and stories for a publication and DVD. Because the seniors were eager to share their knowledge, RETAP offered them opportunities to teach classes in their traditional art forms. Inspired by the open sewing circles, we decided to open these classes to anyone: cultural community members and the general public. The project was successfully carried out by my replacement at IRCO.

RETAP was an effective collaboration between IRCO’s arts and seniors programs. The seniors program had funding for transportation, interpretation, and meeting space, while the arts program delivered the program content and coordination. We launched senior arts programming before RETAP’s start date with several activities. Serendipitously, the Portland Art Museum was hosting a Grandma Moses exhibit. The museum generously donated tickets and provided docents, and the seniors visited with their interpreters. Unable to attend this activity, I later learned that the seniors had been inspired by the fact that Grandma Moses began painting as an elder. They also related to the agrarian themes of her work. One senior commented, “I feel like I went home.”

Through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Neighborhood Arts Program, we presented traditional arts programs for the seniors at their regular meetings. The first was a performance by a local old-time fiddler and a banjo player who gave an educational program about traditional music on the Oregon Trail. They provided texts to the songs, which the elders’ interpreters shared with the seniors, along with the interpretive commentary. At the end of the performance, two Vietnamese gentlemen came to the microphone and sang in their language. Remarkably, the American musicians were able to accompany them by ear, despite the dramatically different musical scales.

The seniors’ inquisitive spirit and apparent joy made the arts activities worthwhile. The notion that the arts are trivial—the icing on the cake—is pervasive in our culture.
Veronique Langlidja models an outfit she made after her arrival in her new home of Portland
Now living in Portland, traditional Togolese seamstress Veronique Langlidja models an outfit that she made after her arrival in her new home. Courtesy of the Arts for New Immigrants Program. Photo: Evan Schneider, Oregon Historical Society

When compared with the basic survival issues of food, shelter, and employment that confront many new refugees and immigrants, the contrast can seem especially striking. Equally compelling, however, were the consistent benefits of arts and heritage activities for the refugee and immigrant artists and communities with whom I worked. Positive outcomes included enhanced English language acquisition, improved mental and general health, better selfesteem and cultural pride, cultural integration, and economic and professional development. Concurrently, the public enjoyed opportunities to interact with newcomers and learn about their cultures and histories through the arts. Many of these benefits are intangible, but their impact is no less potent.

Last summer, when I was doing fieldwork for the Idaho Commission on the Arts, I was invited to dine with a Meshkhetian Turkish family in their home in Boise. Meshkhetian Turkish refugees—members of a Turkish cultural community living in various Soviet republics following the redrawing of political boundaries—have been arriving in the United States over the past few years. Sitting around the dinner table, we asked our hostesses about the blend of Turkish and Russian culinary traditions we had tasted. They replied, “We take the best from all the cultures, and then we keep working on them.” This adventurous spirit could well be applied to the interdisciplinary collaboration among kindred professionals working with refugee and immigrant communities.

My Last Day at IRCO

I would like to share an experience that speaks to the nature of running a refugee arts program and to finding connections in unexpected places. The time was February 2003, when the current war in Iraq seemed inevitable. My last day at IRCO would have stretched into the wee hours of the morning, as I scrambled to tie up all the loose ends before embarking on a new chapter in my life and passing the program on to my successor. As luck would have it—and as was typical of the four years I ran the arts program—I was not fully in charge of my own destiny. Having missed my official sewing circle farewell dinner, the Afghani embroiderer Mabi invited me to dinner at her home. With an undercurrent of shame for my American obsession with time and work, I begrudged this social obligation when I had so much to do. Yet I also knew that the heart of my job as a refugee and immigrant arts coordinator had been the hours spent in artists’ living rooms sipping chai or Bosnian coffee.

So, at the end of my last working day at IRCO, I headed towards Mabi’s apartment in southwest Portland. Driving through the night, I listened to the public radio program Fresh Air, which was broadcasting a tribute to Mr. Rogers, who had died several days earlier. As a member of the first generation of children that watched his show, I had wept when I learned of his passing. His presence among us had been reassuring. On the brink of a new war, in this moment of personal and international upheaval, the world seemed less safe without him. Turning up the car radio, I listened to Mr. Rogers’s familiar velvet voice explain the origin of his trademark cardigan sweaters, all apparently made for him by his mother. I thought of the sewing circle and the love and cultural connection passed from one person to another though handmade objects. In a few minutes, I would cross a threshold into a completely different world, where Mr. Rogers was undoubtedly unknown. These were the cultural leaps to which I had grown accustomed in my work with refugee and immigrant communities.

Arriving at Mabi’s, I added my shoes to the lineup outside her apartment door. She greeted me warmly and ushered me into her living room, before returning to the kitchen. As I sat there, Mabi’s Afghani friends drifted in and out of the room welcoming me, laying a tablecloth on the floor, and bringing out dish after dish. Spinach, okra, chickpeas, fritters and a dipping sauce, cardamom rice, flatbread—Mabi had cooked a predominantly vegetarian meal for my goingaway party. Like Mabi, her friends were dazzling, clearly dressed for the occasion. Their flowing clothes were pastel pink and brown and green chiffon, generously draping their graceful forms. Their fine gold jewelry bespoke a system of value they had brought from home. After I assured them I was comfortable sitting on the floor, we settled in—six women seated in a circle around a feast that lasted for several hours. Relinquishing my earlier angst about time, I melted into the ease of the evening, accepting the gift of these quiet, pleasant hours, knowing that all too soon I would be far from these lovely, hospitable women.

Over dessert and chai, the conversation— alternating between Pashtun and English— turned to the difficulties of learning a new language. I asked the women whether they ever watched American children’s television—Sesame Street, for example—to help them learn English. Yes, they did. Suddenly, one woman—s expression darkened. “Did you hear?” she asked the friend sitting beside her. “Mr. Rogers passed away.” “What?! Not Mr. Rogers . . . he was so nice. You know what I like about him? He really shows you how to do things.” Their sense of loss seemed as keen as mine. Clearly, Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood was even bigger and more inclusive than I had known. I smiled inwardly at the unexpected irony and at my great good fortune to have been invited to dinner that evening.

—Laura R. Marcus

Global Currents in Work with Immigrant Artists

Since I have been based in Chicago this year, I have been catching up on my Jane Addams, reading Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910). I was really struck by a comment that she made in a chapter devoted to the arts at Hull-House. If you go to the Hull-House Museum, you learn that the arts were a very important part of what she was doing, not only in terms of vocational training, but also as a recreational and therapeutic activity and as an activity to keep people connected to their culture and their language. She wrote:
The [art] exhibits afforded pathetic evidence that the older immigrants do not expect the solace of art in this country; an Italian expressed great surprise when he found that we, although Americans, still liked pictures, and said quite naively that he didn’t know that Americans cared for anything but dollars—that looking at pictures was something people only did in Italy.
This is an area that I want to continue to research, because I think the kind of work that Laura Marcus and I have been doing is drawing on the Jane Addams tradition, even though within the field of folklore, within the discourse of the history of folklore studies, that tradition has been submerged under other discourses.

With that in mind, I am going to discuss some issues in work with immigrant artists that are less commonly addressed in our planning because they are hard to talk about in relation to ideas like “artistic quality” and “underserved populations,” although they brace and support such work. The three topics are economics, memory and healing, and human rights, and I will address each one as it relates to a project of mine—past, present, or future. Other people have done this kind of work as well, and I do not want to give the impression I am unique in this work, but I think these projects illuminate the issues in a useful way.

My New York connection—what brings me to this symposium—is that for the last year and a half, I was working with the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) on a project called New York Creates. The purpose of the project is to promote marketing of crafts by establishing a marketing initiative for craft artists in New York City. It includes immigrant and American-born artists, and traditional as well as contemporary crafts. My work was involved in reaching out to the immigrant communities. One of the things we found when we were doing our research is that the immigrant craftspeople could be divided into two groups. There were the people who had figured out a way to produce and were actively involved in limited production and sales within their own community, and there was another group of people that had stopped creating work for one reason or another. I was working with Daisy Rosenblum in the immigrant sector, and we divided up the population. She worked with people who were already producing, and I started to work with communities in which that kind of work had been suspended.

We found that, even though there were various language barriers and a lack of familiarity with the market, as well as a need for professional development, the economic barrier was the most daunting. When we figured out the numbers and calculated the price that an artisan would have to charge to make some profit, there was hardly an equation that could be generated that made craft work cost-effective from an economic standpoint alone. Costs include, of course, raw materials, lost wages (that is, time spent not working at a paying job), space rental, marketing, insurance, distribution, and so on. If a piece were to be sold, we found that it had to have a value added, because buyers generally fell into two categories, neither of which would be ready customers: those from the same culture, who could buy something cheaper made in the country of origin, because imports now are cheaper than making things by hand here; and those who are not from the culture, who might be familiar with the culture, but who have access through travel or the Internet to buy the same work for a lower price directly from the country of origin.

As an example, one of the artists that I met at the very end of the project was an Afghan rug weaver who had been weaving rugs as the livelihood that he and his family had developed in the refugee camps in Pakistan. When I met him in Queens, he said he would love to continue weaving here—he has the skills—but he could only turn out a rug every three or four months. If he was going to make that his income, he would have to charge a quarter of an annual salary for one rug, which was not going to be viable here. In Pakistan he could charge a lot less and sell the rugs abroad. But here the work is unstable—as was his family life, being that they were recent arrivals.

This is a pattern that I have seen in both New Jersey and New York with recent immigrants. The issue of economic survival is central, although this is a much more affluent society than places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Expenses are so high in the United States. If the motivation for creating these crafts is strictly economic, then the price is going to have to be adjusted accordingly, which is almost unrealistic. There has to be something added to the value of the piece, either for the buyers or for the producer—something that will make the process worth the artisan’s time, whether the benefit is therapeutic, community, or educational. So it comes back to the Jane Addams conundrum, because we Americans do have a tendency to think if it helps people out economically, that will be enough motivation for them to continue their work. There is a lot more benefit to the person and community to be derived than just a simple economic incentive, and it is necessary to acknowledge these cultural and psychological incentives.

Another issue that came up in the NYFA project was gender and entrepreneurship, with women who were working at home in embroidery, knitting, and other needle and textile arts, but who were coming from neighborhoods like Astoria and Jackson Heights in Queens or Washington Heights in Manhattan. They do not know, for example, that if they want to set the kind of price that the work deserves based on the amount of artisanship that goes into it, they would have to travel to neighborhoods in downtown or midtown Manhattan. But that wall between Washington Heights and SoHo is huge. Even if the barriers of language and legal documentation did not exist, the psychological barrier of walking into a gallery to promote one’s own knitting or embroidery is daunting. Without a liaison—an organization like NYFA or people who would be the go-betweens— those barriers are going to feel insurmountable.

The barrier can be at the entryway to the gallery. The barrier can also be cultural. I met, interestingly enough, a group of Bangladeshi husbands—taxi drivers all—who said that their wives were doing work at home, particularly embroidery. They were interested in such a project and felt their wives would be, too. But, in their community, the women take care of the children and socialize with other women, but rarely leave the house. So the propriety, as far as the husbands were concerned, of the women’s leaving the house in Queens or in the Bronx to come to Manhattan, or the difficulty of traveling alone to sell their work, was the insurmountable problem for them. What the men hoped for was some kind of distribution point where there could be a community organizer, an arts organizer, to work with the women or organize them, if you will. There was also an educational aspect, in that these women could be introduced to a more professional level of marketing and small business management, learning how to develop their own industry, their own enterprise—and in so doing, they ultimately would no longer have to go through their husbands.

Another issue, and a very obvious one today, is the competition from globalization. Massproduced items are much more accessible and, moreover, are so promoted in the media and among the younger generation that they become much more desirable. For example, in the West African community in Newark, there were a couple of tailors and embroiderers doing handmade work, but their shops have been closing in the downtown area because of competition from imports, the real estate boom, and a lack of interest in their clothing compared to mass-produced brands with a designer label and (one imagines) cheap manufacture in a sweatshop somewhere.

Currently I am working with the Cambodian refugee community specifically. The community in Chicago has just established a museum called the Cambodian American Heritage Museum. The museum grew out of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, a mutual assistance association founded in 1975. One of the big surprises for me in Chicago is the extent to which one indication that an ethnic or immigrant community has arrived, so to speak, is the establishment of its own museum. There are about twenty different immigrant or ethnic community museums in Chicago, including Lithuanian, Polish, two Ukrainian, Irish, Mexican, Assyrian, and Cambodian museums; the Korean Cultural Center; and the Indo- American Center. Many of these groups have now formed a federation called the Chicago Cultural Alliance.

The Cambodian American Heritage Museum has two parts to its mission. The first is educating the public—including people from the Cambodian community and the descendents of those people, who are often young people growing up here without a sense of their own cultural background—about Cambodian culture and history. The other piece of our mission concerns genocide: educating people from outside the Cambodian community about the genocide of the 1970s and about human rights and genocide more broadly. It is astonishing to me to have groups of college students coming in for tours that, when I ask for a show of hands at the beginning of the tour, don’t know what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s or why 150,000 Cambodians came to the United States in the 1980s.

One of the things that’s also very interesting and will bear on our work long-term is the fact that mental health issues—especially depression and post-traumatic stress disorder—are of course also related to physical health. Hypertension and diabetes that may be linked to hypertension are epidemic within the Cambodian refugee community. One of the hopes of the museum’s founders was to create a cultural space where a kind of healing could take place—not just a healing in the sense of a memorial and spiritual healing (although that, too), but as I have come to realize over the past few months, a much more literal healing. Questions asked are, How does the museum help people? What kind of physical space and activity are available to help people with depression, with post-traumatic stress disorder? In fact a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “Mental Health of Cambodian Refugees Two Decades After Resettlement in the United States” (Marshall et al., August 3, 2005, vol. 294, 571– 9) reported a very detailed ethnographic survey in Long Beach, California—the largest Cambodian refugee community in the country—that showed around seventy percent of the population have suffered major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or both within the past year. These conditions contribute to hypertension, which in turn contributes to diabetes, and it now appears in the informal studies that our organization has been a part of that about two-thirds of the Cambodian elderly community in this country suffers from diabetes.

This evidence indicates there are enormous lingering physical and medical issues that come out of the war, unresolved issues over genocide, violence in this country, and separation from one’s place of origin. Consequently, trauma studies is one of the areas that I think must concern folklorists and community organizers who work in the arts with immigrant communities. This includes developing more sophistication about dealing with artists and communities in a post-traumatic historical period.

Finally, I would like to address the issue of immigrant and refugee human rights, which are currently, as many might be aware, under attack throughout the world. The United States, Great Britain, and Australia have all taken major strides in the past five years to roll back asylum protections, to criminalize illegal entry—even of people who are seeking asylum, which is actually protected under the Geneva Convention—and to clamp down on other kinds of visas and certainly economic migration, which is given a much lower priority than political migration. As we are in a period of reaction, and immigrant rights are curtailed around the world—just as, I might add, the value and importance of cheap labor has never been greater—we find ourselves running up against constraints in the legal system that make day-to-day life (not to mention artistic practice) for immigrants more difficult. As anyone who has ever tried to help an immigrant artist navigate through the immigration system knows, it is a time-, energy-, and emotionconsuming process just to get to the point at which someone has legal status and knows it.

For refugees and asylees there are one set of issues, for undocumented people there are others, and for people on immigrant or nonimmigrant visas there are still other issues (such as mixed status within one nuclear family), all of which have an impact on eligibility to participate in artistic programming and the civil or psychological freedom to do so. We cannot afford to become experts in immigration law, although I am sure many of us in this field have been drawn deeply into this area. I suggest that we would do well to develop an understanding and analysis of human, civil, and cultural rights simply to do our job better—not to mention to be better citizens. Just as public and state folklorists have done an outstanding job over the past thirtyfive years of educating the public about cultural and artistic diversity, we now have to adjust that educational mission to the current social conflicts that deeply affect our constituencies.

In this most interdisciplinary of fields, I think we will need to develop more of an understanding of such apparently unrelated fields as economics, trauma and migration studies, and human rights simply to do our job as public folklorists more effectively and to better serve the public, both immigrant and native-born. What I am trying to encourage folklorists to do is to think more seriously and strategically about these three sets of issues: economic issues and the role of folk arts within the globalized, multinational marketplace; psychological issues, particularly surrounding trauma, a still-emerging field with the potential for real partnerships with people working in centers for survivors of torture and in the fields of art therapy and music therapy; and finally, human rights on the international and local scale. Concentrating on the local is essential, because that is where we can have the greatest impact, but we need to keep an eye on the global and on the political dynamics and currents flowing beneath the artistic surface. It is in those currents, and current events, if you will, that new people and ideas come to our shores.

—William Westerman


Laura R. Marcus is an independent folklorist specializing in cultural arts and heritage fieldwork, consulting, special projects, and writing. Her current work includes directing Building Cultural Bridges, a national interdisciplinary project bridging the arts and social services to build support for cultural continuity and artist growth among refugees and immigrants in the United States, for the Institute for Cultural Partnerships; research and writing on rural community development for Renewing the Countryside; and research assistance for the Western Folklife Center. Marcus previously served as a program associate at the Fund for Folk Culture and founding coordinator of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization’s Arts for New Immigrants Program in Portland, Oregon. She holds an M.A. in folklore and anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin and a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University, where her research focused on historical and contemporary Navajo trading and art as a cultural meeting place. Her recent publications and exhibits include Traditional Arts of the Oregon Country (1999), “In My Country: A Gathering of Refugee and Immigrant Fiber Arts Traditions” (2002), and Professional Development in Folklore: A Resource Guide for Graduate Students and New Professionals (2003).

William Westerman is director of the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago. The museum and memorial are projects of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, supported by the Joyce Foundation. Westerman also serves on the board of directors for the Boaz Community Corporation, an immigration law clinic in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and the Interfaith Refugee Action Team–Elizabeth, which works for the human rights of detained asylum seekers. He is the founder and president of Art Knows No Borders, Inc., working with immigrant artists and developing artistic programs to promote the human rights of immigrants and refugees. Previously Westerman was immigrant outreach coordinator for the New York Creates craft and folk artist initiative of the New York Foundation for the Arts. One of his recent publications, “Wild Grasses and New Arks: Transformative Potential in Applied and Public Folklore,” appears in the Winter 2006 special issue of the Journal of American Folklore.

I was continually amazed by the quantities of musical instruments, tools, handmade linens, special cooking equipment, and more that people managed to transport to this country...Along with these items came more intangible resources: the knowledge of how to do things, the memories that connect people with home, and the desire to weave continuity, comfort, and meaning into life in a new country.

Recommended Reading

Breslin, Jimmy. 2002. The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez. New York: Crown.

Budhos, Marina Tamar. 1999. Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. New York: Holt.

Bye, Carolyn. 2004. Brave New World: Nurturing the Arts in New Immigrant and Refugee Communities. Issues in Folk Arts and Traditional Culture, Fund for Folk Culture working paper series 2, online: http:// www.folkculture.org/pdfs/ bye_working_paper_02.pdf.

Graves, James Bau. 2005. Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community, and the Public Purpose. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Lehrer, Warren, and Judith Sloan. 2003. Crossing the Boulevard: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America. New York: Norton.

Modic, Kate, and Ron Kirby. 1997. Refugee Arts: A Strategy for Successful Resettlement. A Manual for Refugee Service Workers and Refugee Artists. Harrisburg, PA: Institute for Cultural Partnerships.

Moriarty, Pia. 2004. Immigrant Participatory Arts: An Insight into Community-Building in Silicon Valley. Inquiries into Culture Series. San José, CA: Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Fall-Winter 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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