An Afternoon With Creative and Resourceful Refugees


Last week I attended a second-annual paint studio afternoon in Spokane, Washington, with refugees and immigrants from Bhutan, Russia, and Iraq. While Refugee Connections typically brings interpreters to arts events there is often no need for them when people are given a colorful palette of paints, a canvas and a few brushes. The language of intuition manifests and the results are pure magic.

I find these gatherings are instantaneous mood elevators. Some of the participants painted more than one painting on the same canvas by applying a coat of white and beginning anew. They seemed to enjoy the act of creating the temporary masterpiece as much as the painting they ultimately allowed to dry and brought home.

Our host Hephersen Riggins at the Sip ‘n Paint Studio couldn’t get over that this particular group of painters used less than half of their allotted paint supply and that the artists asked if they could take the rest with them. “Normally, we go through gobs of paint,” he said. These recently resettled residents of Spokane were equally frugal with the snacks, despite the ample fruit, cookies and tea provided. Maybe this quality comes from spending 17 years in a refugee camp, as one woman had, waiting to be admitted to any country, where she could begin to build a more permanent life.

I often visit refugee centers and social services organizations when I’m abroad, sometimes to read books to the children who come to these agencies. To learn a bit about how Syrian refugees are giving back to their host communities in Istanbul, please visit my former blog post for January 22, 2016 as well as a Spokesman Review article at this link:

I’d like to share a quote in Neal Ascherson ‘s book Black Sea, which is a regional and historical exploration of diversity. The quote is one Ascherson included by Mary Robinson, former President of the Irish Republic. As my grandparents emigrated to the US from Ireland perhaps I’m biased with respect to the sheer wisdom of Robinson’s words: “The old Irish term for province is ciocead, meaning a fifth, and yet, as everyone knows, there are only four geographical provinces on this island. The fifth province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is the place within each one of us–that place which is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in.”

May we witness in this New Year more compassionate treatment and policies toward immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers world wide.