Burmese refugees seek therapy through art

By Mark Herring

Coaxing repressed violent or traumatic memories out of child refugees is an inherently difficult task, and the ever-present language barrier further hinders any counseling.

However, artists from Durham are using art as a form of therapy to help Burmese refugee children in the Triangle adjust to life stateside.

The ramifications of political unrest from 1962 in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar can still be felt today in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham. As a result of renewed ethnic persecution and violent civil unrest, 48,600 civilians fled to bordering Thailand or Malaysia from 2008 to 2009, according to a report by the UN.

The Burmese population that lived in North Carolina during a spark in civil unrest in 1988 has acted as a support network for new refugees fleeing persecution, according to Art Therapy Institute Executive Director Kristin Linton. In January 2008, Linton started working with a small classroom of Burmese students on a grant from UNC to study and counsel the mental health of the young refugees. Now in its third year, the Art Therapy Instituteis working with over 80 students from Myanmar.

“The students we are working with are different ethnic minorities from Burma,” Hillary Rubesin, art therapist, said. “A lot of these students are Karen, an ethnic minority being persecuted in Burma right now.”

The Karen has historically been subjugated in Myanmar, evident in the etymology of the word, “Karen,” which means “wild unclean man” in Burmese. This open inequality demonstrates the misfortune the Karen people have endured; they are a community without a country, constantly fleeing borders. For the past half-century, many have come to accept civil war as a normal part of their lives.

“It’s been difficult for these students because they can’t express a lot of their grievances in English,” Linton said. “Art is a way to surpass this. They can express a lot of the really terrible things they’ve experienced without having to talk about them, in their own language or in English.”

Through May and June, The Art Therapy Institute is holding an exhibition for the students’ work at Cameron’s Gallery in Chapel Hill. The therapists and their students met for a reception at the gallery May 22 to celebrate their work thus far.

“I enjoyed the exhibition and I think it was a good way to share the stories of these children with the greater community,” Sonya Deulina, senior in psychology, said.

Deulina works as an intern with the institute and said she sees art as a way for children to verbalize themselves.

“It’s important because the students can have someone to talk to, especially when they are coming in and adjusting to American culture and recovering from adversity in Southeast Asia. A lot of them need someone to talk to or to communicate with,” she said.

The artwork featured in the gallery shows recurring themes of triumph and nostalgia as well as the word love written in both English and Karen. Many of the students also wrote accompanying poems about their pieces.

“We would put art materials out on the table, and they would start drawing,” Rubesin said. “They drew the mountains, scenes from refugee camps in Thailand, and sometimes a lot of war imagery as well. A lot of those images seemed to be a safe place for them to start the process of drawing, and it shows a collective identity in the work.”

The art allows the young refugees to think about their pasts and articulate their feelings in a creative way. Chir Htoo, a middle school student, painted a picture of his childhood in a refugee camp in Thailand and wrote a story to complement his art.

“I wrote a story of the past,” Htoo said. “This was in the camps, with my mother. My father, he is left.”

Htoo’s English faltered, but his father died when Htoo was a child in the camps.

“I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know how. The painting makes me feel better and sometimes I’m happy. But it’s hard to think about it because the memory makes me sad…hard to remember.”

In addition to the children’s projects, the Art Therapy Institute has started new programs to provide more thorough support for the refugee community, both from within and outside of Myanmar.

“Not only are we working with the kids, but we do intakes with the families. We have a women’s group working with the mothers; We’ve tried to reach out to their entire community,” Rubesin said. “We’re also working with students from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bhutan.”

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