by Dennis Dalman
A stunning exhibit in images and text will tell the story of the hopes, fears, accomplishments, disappointments and dreams of immigrant refugees who came so far to a new world called America.
“Free at Last: Journey of Hope” will open Wednesday, Sept. 4 at the River’s Edge Convention Center in downtown St. Cloud. The free exhibit, which was installed by curator Carol Weiler of Sartell, will continue through Oct. 31.
Most of the artists/participants in the exhibit are Somali refugees who live in the greater St. Cloud area, although there is also art by an African immigrant and a Japanese immigrant. There are 60 artworks in the show, along with 14 biographical essays written by the immigrants.
The concept for “Free at Last” began with “Hands Across the World,” a St. Cloud-based agency that serves the needs of refugees new to the area. The agency enlisted the help of five local artists to help new residents develop language, social and work skills while at the same time having an outlet for their artistic expressions. The art-making and learning workshops took place in autumn 2012 at the Paramount Theater art studios.
The resultant artworks include weavings, paintings, ceramics, appliques, fabric constructions and drawings. There are also many photographs in the exhibit, many of them showing the refugee/artists in the process of creating their works. Faces and name identities (other than first names) are scarce in the exhibit as most Somalis are leery of getting their photos taken for political and/or cultural/religious reasons.
Some of the biographies are so traumatic and emotionally turbulent that many who have read them began to cry. The artworks, in vivid shapes and colors, reflect the deep roots of Somali agrarian culture in which animals and nomadic lifestyles play an integral part. Both the art and the biographies also evoke a sense of exile, displacement, fears and hopes as these refugees went from place to place – among alien cultures – during their long journeys and their struggles to adapt in such foreign places. That journey included a series of daunting barriers that involved stark differences in language, culture, society, education, employment and even climate.
The artists who conducted the workshops were all moved deeply by their experiences in working with people from such different cultural backgrounds.
“From the first invitation to participate in this program, I was excited about how it would challenge me as a teaching artist,” LeAnn Goerss said. “I had no idea how deeply it would touch me personally. I was fearful of the language barrier. However, the experience of communicating one on one with a woman from across the world; exchanging , word by word, English for Somali, although intimidating, was also energizing. All my class participants were female, and I could feel the delicate threads of sisterhood across oceans, continents and language difficulties, weaving a beautiful pattern into my life. Opening the heart allows all of us to be ‘free at last.’ ”
Other artists involved with the project are Dan Mondloch, Jeri Olson-McCoy, Solveig Anderson, Melissa Gohman and Weiler, who took hundreds of photos of the creation process in action and of the finished works.
Somalia is a country with a population of about 10 million located on the ocean-edge of the Horn of Africa, bordered by Ethiopia to the west and Djibouti to the northwest. An important stop on ancient trade routes, Somalia was later the subject of imperial manipulations, mainly by the British and Italians and neighboring Ethiopia. It gained independence in 1960.
In the 1990s there began a long civil war among many rival factions and clans, which resulted in a famine causing the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Somalis, as well as many deaths of civilians through deliberate acts of terror. Two terrible droughts in 2011 further exacerbated famine and instability. During those turbulent, dangerous years, many people left Somalia, seeking refuge from famine and death in other countries, including the United States. Many of the immigrants came eventually to the United States, with a large percentage of them settling in the Twin Cities and the greater St. Cloud area.
One of the 14 biographies in “Free at Last” was written by a Somali woman whose first name is Maryama. Here is her essay:
“My name is Maryama. I was born in Somalia in El Birde. I have an older brother and an older sister. I was 17 years old when my parents passed away. I moved to Ethiopia with my older sister afterward. All I remember from my home country is the civil war, the collapsing of the government, the dispersion of families and the destruction of lives. Most of these experiences terrified me greatly.
During the war, my siblings and I lost contact. Everyone went their own way. As of today, I still do not know where my siblings are.
The United Nations helped me settle in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The camp in which I took refuge was called Kabribayax. I got married in the camp. I gave birth to a boy and two girls. While I was in the camp, my husband and I worked for the UN. We were specialized in the food distribution area. My husband passed away in the camp due to natural causes.
After his death, we started processing to come to the United States. It took us three years to finally get our travel documents ready to come to the U.S.
In April 2011, my children and I traveled from Ethiopia to Denver, Colo. In Colorado, it was hard for us to feel comfortable because there is barely any Somali population. I got in contact with a friend who suggested I should move to St. Cloud, Minn. With the help of my friend, I am here today. I am happy to live here in Minnesota because I have friends around. I worked at Jennie-O for a while but I had to stop because of medical reasons. I am currently going to school at Hands Across the World. I started in January 2013. My children go to Tech High School, South Junior High School and Talahi Elementary School.
My wish is to get a higher education and a job. I am wishing that my children will go further with their educations so we can be at peace all together. I also wish to find my siblings somewhere one day.”
“Free At Last” is a collaboration among Hands Across the World and the Paramount Education Outreach Department, under the guidance of project director Jane Oxton. Funding for the exhibit came from the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, the Otto Bremer Foundation, the Center for Nonprofit Excellence and Social Innovation, the Central Minnesota Arts Board, the St. Cloud Lions Club and the St. Cloud Optimists Club.
In the future, “Free At Last” will also be displayed at other venues, including the St. Cloud Public Library.