Art for Refugees

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Shauna Lee Lange

New York-based Sara Green was an international professional dancer for over a decade. In 1999, when her change-of-career leanings coincided with the Balkan Yugoslavia crisis, she knew she wanted to help people. Her brother, a war correspondent and journalist, told Green that he kept seeing and hearing of children left to the unrelenting winter mountains. How could she be of help to them, she wondered. Green knew that to truly effect change, she would need additional communication skills, credentials, and an influential network beyond her education in art and history. This led to her earning an MBA in finance and economics from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

Painter Jason John’s ‘Don’t Worry Ricder’

Painter Jason John’s ‘Don’t Worry Ricder’ seems to capture the sense of displacement and unease experienced by many refugees, this portrait suggesting a contemporary saint.

Green’s seed idea, which continues to be supported by educators, was to develop an educational curriculum for internally displaced refugees. Her unique and cross-modal organization, known as Art for Refugees in Transition, helps elders transfer cultural traditions top down, and assists children in retaining knowledge from the bottom up. The program teaches refugees how to teach about cultural traditions, not what to teach, during a two-to-five-year incubation period with an end goal for self-sustainability.

Green is a healer and a builder. She seeks to restore individual self-worth, community self-identification, and intergenerational relationships through cultural exchange. Her work has taken the organization to Northern Thailand, Colombia, Egypt, and Jordan in partnership with hosting groups.

In 2007, Green attempted an “Art for Refugees” program in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Ithaca, New York, for resettled refugees, and found her efforts to reach disenfranchised populations in the US took on a very different post-emergency role. She says agencies are generally overwhelmed with meeting essential survival needs such as food, water, shelter, safety, and medical care. Art for Refugees in Transition’s curriculum is often last on a long list of emergent acculturation and integration issues. Where she’s considered art applications for indigenous peoples, she’s encountered an established hierarchy incongruent with her model and traditions unwelcoming to outsiders.

Green believes that in working with refugees, either in the US or abroad, one must be vigilant about not becoming what she describes as voyeurs or users. “To abuse the rights of refugees as a people is to abuse who they are,” she says. “While we are seeking to protect their cultural tenants, we must not do so from ‘The Great American’ point of view. We must not look down on the most vulnerable. Our work should be for them, by them, to them, and with them. In this soul work, we must not make others our poster children.”

Largely supported by charitable grants and philanthropic gifting, Green is now looking to marry Art for Refugees with larger refugee plans inherent in Mercy Corps, Red Cross, or like-minded NGO relief programs. She seeks openings for inclusion into a larger playbook with a wider reach. You can learn more about the program and contact Green at: artforrefugees.org.

The author is the founder of The Art Evangelist (theartevangelist.com), a full-service liturgical art advisory specializing in art integration for sacred spaces and public places.