–Soumya Dhulekar, Programs Coordinator
We’ve been busy at the Moffet Arab Arts After-School Program. The students are rehearsing to perform at an awards show at Temple University, hosted by Interfaith Center, and getting their artwork ready for their exhibition at Circle of Hope in May!
I finally got a second to talk with Gianny, one of Al-Bustan’s program assistants at Moffet. Gianny is responsible, smart, and ready to call you out! These qualities make her the perfect program assistant. Find out more about her below:
What are you best at during the after-school program?
I am the best drummer.
What do you do when you’re drumming?
I help the class. Whenever we take a break, I help get the kids ready with the hand positions. Some kids don’t know part of the song. I help them like… know it. We go slowly.
What do you like best about this program?
I get to drum and do everything with my friends.
Do you like being a leader?
What do you like about being a leader?
You get to teach people how to do new things.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Great! What grade?
Wait. NO. DON’T SAY THAT. I DON’T WANT TO BE A MATH TEACHER.
Yes you do…you like math. What grade?
FINE, HIGH SCHOOL! I ALREADY SAID!
Okay, thank you!
LET ME SEE THE INTERVIEW.
Join us next time for more insightful interviews with Moffet’s multi-talented students!
–Soumya Dhulekar, Programs Coordinator
My name is Yannick, and I’m a Project Assistant for An Immigrant Alphabet: an art project sponsored by Al-Bustan, currently living on the exterior of the Municipal Services Building. As part of my job, I encourage people to view the installation, and to join a dialogue on immigration and the themes of the artwork. One of the ways I do this is to invite passersby to contribute to any one of a number of large chalkboards that I roll into the square. One of these is simply 31 open spaces beneath a prompt which reads: “Write a Message of Love in Your Language.”
The prompt was initially conceived as something that would catch the attention of people walking by, and start conversations about language, and culture. Often I’d encounter resistance: English speakers would object, “But I only speak English!” To which I would urge them: “Well, that’s your language, then – put it on!” Sometimes this was a great opening into conversations about culture and how invisible or unconscious our own culture can seem when it feels ubiquitous and constantly affirmed.
But far more often I’d see people hurry to the board, excited to add their own language, their own messages. Sometimes this led to moments of education: some generous passersby teaching me about languages, scripts, and ethnicities I’d never known about before.
Between September 2017 and the end of February of 2018, we collected more than 750 messages of Love and Friendship, written in more than 55 languages. I find those numbers both really impressive and surprising, but in fact I should have expected this outcome. According to a 2015 US Census Bureau Report, there are at least 146 languages spoken in homes across Philadelphia. That’s comparable with similar metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and not far behind some of the most linguistically diverse cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, but each city in turn is dwarfed by the national total. Across America, the Census Bureau has recorded at least 350 languages spoken.
Our little data set was meant to be essentially a conversation starter, but it inadvertently became a reflection of a broader truth about America: our national fabric is woven out of colors that are enormously, endlessly, and essentially diverse.
On March 5th of this year, these messages took on a new role.
A few weeks earlier, knowing that the official proposed deadline to end the DACA program was approaching, I spoke with the Al-Bustan team, and we agreed to make our documentation of these Messages of Love available to a number of organizations that were planning rallies in support of DREAMers and immigrants. After some coordinating, Al-Bustan Public Education Manager Megan Madison worked with the Aquinas Center to transform a selection of the entries we had collected into signs bearing Messages of Love for our DREAMers. We then brought these signs to the site of An Immigrant Alphabet, Thomas Paine Plaza, where a rally was being coordinated by PICC, Juntos, Aquinas, Africom, New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, and VietLead.
At 11:30am on March 5th, a crowd began to form, holding signs and chanting: “Refugees are here to stay!” and “Immigrants are here to stay!” Speakers from the various organizations addressed the crowd, and appealed for broad support of all immigrants in America, and resistance to political deals and solutions that would pit one group against another (restrictions to legal immigration in exchange for amnesty for DREAMers, for instance). I spoke briefly, inviting the gathered crowd to use our Love Board as a way to send more messages to DREAMers – which they did.
I’ve spoken before about how fortunate I feel to be able to represent the Immigrant Alphabet, and the 18 North East High School students who created it. I truly believe their experiences have the greatest potential to change minds and move our national debate on immigration in a more humane direction; I am grateful that they have been willing to share those experiences, and it is a privilege to have the task of amplifying their voice. Because of all of this and more, it was a great joy to have the chance to send a message back, however small, of love and support: to show the student artists and all DREAMers that there are many Americans who stand with them.
The Immigrant Alphabet will remain at MSB until early summer, and Al-Bustan will continue spending time on the square, handing out chalk and fostering conversations. The Love Board will be there, and as ever, all passersby will be invited to write messages of love in their language, to whomever, and for whatever purpose. As for me, I will be dedicating my words to the DREAMers—and together, whatever we intend, everyone who contributes will be helping represent another experience: the American story. It is a story that immigrants and DREAMers are undeniably a part of, and as our board reflects the broader diversity of America, so too I hope it gives immigrants a window into an America they can recognize: an America that feels like home. Because on the other side of that window, the truth is clear. America has always been a multilingual nation. It is ever growing ever more so. Speakers of hundreds of languages call America home.
Refugees are here to stay.
Immigrants are here to stay.
Yannick Trapman-O’Brien | Project Assistant, An Immigrant Alphabet
Immigration touches all parts of American life, from food to travel to the economy. According to a 2015 U.S. census report, immigrants and second-generation Americans make up almost 24% of the U.S. population. So how can today’s media address immigration? And how do immigrant communities feel about the way they are covered?
These questions were addressed at a panel discussion hosted by WHYY and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture on December 5th, 2017; a year that was folding to an end, yet had much to pass on to the New Year in regards to addressing immigration and countless other critical themes.
The panel was comprised of five journalists, and community members were seated at round tables. Discussion between journalists and the audience ranged from hopeful to critical. Panelists acknowledged the distrust between immigrant communities and journalists and announced what they are doing to address it. This made for thought-provoking conversation and opened up the conversation to perspectives often left out of the mainstream.
Fernando Chang-Muy, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and the panel’s moderator, challenged the very definition of being an immigrant.
“Some of us wanted to come here for better opportunities for our children or for ourselves. And some of us were forced to come here; in the case of Chinese to build railroads, in the case of West Africans to work the cotton mines… That distinction needs to be made.”
Emma Restropo, a freelance journalist who covered detention centers, said she visited every week because although the stories were the same, it was capturing representative voices that was important.
Perla Lara of Spanish language newspaper El Sol said that, as neighbors, we need to be more connected.
“Americans… are very insulated. [El Sol has] been here for 24 years in the city, and most of you don’t even know we exist. I think we need to talk more about our lives here.”
Jeff Gommage, from The Philadelphia Inquirer, said news organizations are failing undocumented communities, in part because it is so hard to find undocumented residents who are willing to come forward.
“Where I haven’t been able to crack this nut is getting to these people… who are living these lives.”
Laura Benshoff, who writes about immigration for WHYY, says a constant struggle is figuring out which views to prioritize, asking “Who speaks for a community?” This, combined with a lack of feedback from communities she’s covering, makes it hard to assess how well she is doing her job, never mind identify ways to improve.
Shauna Small, a Jamaican-American, said media representation of immigration is insulting and works against women.
“Mothers leave their children and come to foreign countries alone to work menial jobs because they want a better life. That is immigration. It is not an escaping of criminals, it is not rapists coming to a country to hide. It is seeking a better life in a world that works against women who are generally oppressed in most countries.”
Ramses Montes, an audience member and college student, criticized the media for treating immigration as a political issue, and said stories about vulnerable communities should be more mainstream.
“It’s just a continuation of the exploitation of black and brown bodies, because immigration only comes up when you’re trying to get a vote, when you’re trying to get something out of people.”
Another audience member, Anna, pointed out the challenges faced assimilating to American culture, and how that impacts coverage of immigrant communities.
“Depending on who you talk and which point in time in their life, you will get a very different perspective from the same cultural group.”
Samuel, chapter leader at Rutgers University-Camden for Define American, talked about the way immigration is framed.
“Once you realize the ramifications of associating with legality and criminalizing migration, you see devastating impacts. You see that internationally, and you see that here.”
Rona Buchalter, Director of Refugee Programming and Planning at HIAS Pennsylvania, talked about the moral ambiguity she feels connecting her clients with journalists.
“It makes me uncomfortable to trot out the most heartwarming, sad case we can find or client that’s willing to talk to the journalist.” At the same time, she acknowledged it is important for the public to hear these stories.
Panels such as this one are vital to show that journalists and community members can begin a dialogue and build trust between the media and vulnerable communities. It is a step closer to giving media outlets more equal representation, and stories that resonate with diverse audiences.
I had a moment to check in with Yousef, a talented illustrator and author at our Moffet Arab Arts After School Program. Yousef is in first grade and loves drawing monsters, pirates, and other types of villains. He gave me a quick artist talk about his most recent work.
What’s going on in this drawing? Can you explain it to me?
This guy on the left is looking at Donald Trump.
Is the guy in the middle Donald Trump?
Mhm. This guy’s like, “What’s Donald Trump gonna do?” And Donald Trump is like, “Hmm…” [Points at bear] This bear’s like, “I don’t care what you guys are doing, I’m a bear.”
What’s Donald Trump going to do?
He’s probably going to build a wall.
Oh no, okay.
[Points to a small figure on top of the wall] That’s Donald Trump too.
Donald Trump is thinking about himself on a wall?
What do you think about the wall in general?
It’s really bad.
Do you like making funny drawings like this?
Yeah, drawing is fun.
What’s the next book you’re working on?
It’s called, “Who Stole My Dirt?”
Who Stole My Dirt? will be published soon in a Moffet classroom near you. Come back in February for our next student interview!
–Soumya Dhulekar, Programs Coordinator
My name is Adam Bdeir; I’m a Palestinian-American neuroscience student at Temple University. I’m also Lisa Volta’s teaching assistant for art at Al-Bustan’s after school program with John Moffet Elementary School.
… That’s what I tell people if they ask, but honestly, I barely do a thing. If I’ve learned anything from my time with Al-Bustan, it’s that the kids run the show. As soon as their little brains get wrapped around the project, they take off like birds. All we do is give them space and direction.
Every Tuesday, I get to Moffet at 3 PM and await the students in the auditorium, where they trickle in from their classes. By the time everyone is together, the small ampitheatre’s steps have become a multi-tiered storm of children, belongings, and conversation. I float around the room and pick up the pieces of the day.
Caleb got a little gelatinous blue skeleton to play with from a teacher, but he just pulled off one of its legs by accident. I promise to super glue it back together next week (he never brings it back). Christian and Seamus argue about whose zombie drawing is more true to life, but I contend that everybody can imagine a zombie the way they like. Gianny teaches me how to do “the backpack kid” dance, which takes a little too long (I am still not really proficient at it). Areliz, donning her wolf cap, goes cross-eyed while prattling about Rick and Morty. I know, Areliz; I love that show too.
This is the only time of day I see the entirety of the program’s student body. After the auditorium, we bounce to the cafeteria for a snack and then come back to split up into art, singing and drumming classes. Even though the kids know what classes they’re signed up for, they still groan while they get sorted. Besties get separated and playtime gets cleaved, but we have work to do. Specifically, we have art to make, I tell the group in line before me.
Ms. Lisa smiles as we enter. Some kids can’t contain themselves and race to the seats at the table, while the more proper students amble on over. There’s a larger activity to every class, but each day we start with some free time to draw– warm-up exercise to sort of settle in. Now this is a feast for my curiosity of the tiny artist’s brain. Sketching whatever they want, the students bare their young minds through imagery. All drawings reflect personality, but sometimes students make conscious choices to evidence personal experiences, whether at school, at home, through media, or through other children or adults they know.
Some kids fill pages with colorful patterns, making abstracted indications of their mental spaces. Others venture to depict complete scenes of life. Often, students just muse while they babble, producing momentary doodles or gifts for friends and teachers.
Have you ever talked to someone while they’re being absorbed by some fine motor skill task, AKA drawing a picture? During free draw, I routine the whole class and just hang out next to the students as they sketch. If you become involved deeply enough in speaking to a kid while they draw, you may derail their focus entirely. But if you strike up a conversation “under the radar” that is just trivial enough to demand only a part of your respective attentions, you get to see some magic happens. Something bleeds through their hand, takes life and manifests in images. That something isn’t always related to our conversation. Conversation really just serves as some cognitive distraction, to unblock creativity. In this way, both the art and dialogue become richer in meaning. I know you might be thinking, it’s not that deep, but I love having that opportunity, to take a peek, to make an interpretation. It’s a sort of life-is-art, art-is-life scenario, except it’s miniature.
Anyway, that kind of exchange continues as we move on to Ms. Lisa’s intended activity for the day. This year we’ve discussed a few international contemporary artists as muses for our projects. We started with French-Tunisian muralist el Seed and Palestinian calligrapher and muralist Belal Khaled. El Seed blew my mind in November when he visited to drop a piece in West Philly. His Arabic “calligraffiti” style inspired us to paint flowing designs over black backgrounds. Belal Khaled further honed us in on Arabic calligraphy, and they both got us thinking about what kind of messages we could turn into art and vice versa. Of course, the children play dumb when we talk about all this stuff, but they know what’s going on; it shows in the paintings they created.
After we paint, we put all the work in the middle of the group and take a second to appreciate them, pick favorites. Everyone chooses a work to praise. It’s really charming at the end of a class, hearing kids offer compliments and critique. We’re a mutually supportive community. It’s really important to maintain trust and respect in our circle of friends. Ms. Lisa always says that the goal of each week is to make your best work of art to date. That’s a personal and communal goal.
Right now we’re finger knitting in awe of Emirati fiber artist Sara al Haddad. She knits with varying materials, creating forms to use in spaces or sculpture. The students are either four-finger or two-finger knitting yarn to make little weaves, which we’re collecting for a larger collaborative project. As a class, we’ll decide what to create with everyone’s contributions and determine just how to create it. I’m super excited to see this project through with the kids, especially because I, too, just learned how to finger knit (Shout out Ms. Lisa!)
-Adam Bdier, Temple University, Moffet After-School Art Assistant
The first was a woman—I’ll call her “I.”. She was clearly interested in the artwork, staring intently at one of the 26 banners that adorn the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building. “There’s a caption at your feet, too,” I offered, pointing to the accompanying letter and definitions, written by the Northeast High School students who had authored An Immigrant Alphabet. I introduced myself as working with the project, and spoke briefly about the students, and the process of making the piece, and its scale.“It goes all the way around the building, so you can treat it like a gallery,” I invited. She nodded, still a little tense; “Thank you.”
Interested in the artwork, I concluded, but not in a
conversation. I explained that I would be happy to answer any other questions and moved to give her some space. “This is a great project,” she said, by way of parting. “I came from Pittsburgh, so I’m really happy to see this.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I didn’t ask her to clarify. As an on-site project assistant, much of my job consists of little judgement calls like this: gauging interest, guessing how much someone might care to know, explore, or discuss. I try to give everyone at least the basic details, to invite them to the content and what Al-Bustan and the students
of Northeast High are doing in the plaza. Some people respond viscerally, emotionally, and I explore that if they are willing. Others are more eager to talk, and want to contribute by filling out surveys to share their stories and opinions.
“I.” was not looking to talk. Later, I found her again at one of our display boards, several long racks of postcard-sized versions of each letter in the alphabet. Next to her a man puzzled through the cards— “J.”, for short. I stepped over to offer him information about the project and the students, but he cut me off:
“—such a shame what they did to Argentina and Brazil,” he said, pointing to one of the banners, where a student wore an Argentine Football jersey. It was the kind of loaded statement that experience teaches you will be followed by an explanation regardless of reply, but this being what
I am technically paid for, I took the bait; “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, how they banned immigration from certain countries so that everyone could have light skin,” he explained. “They only wanted Europeans. That’s why so many Nazis went there, after the war. They all like fled there, and that’s why everyone in Argentina is like, blond hair and blue eyes, you know? It’s like, bittersweet in a way, because that’s why people there are so beautiful.”
I struggled to think where to begin addressing such a problematic narrative of history that was flattened, distorted, and uninformed. Fortunately, someone else started for me. “I’m sorry, but it is not that black and white,” said “I.” from the postcards. I realized she too had been stunned into stillness as “J.” spoke, but now she became animated. “I am Colombian, and I can tell you it’s not so simple as all that. The history of Europeans in South America is really complex, and involved.” The man
started, a bit taken aback, but began heatedly debating with “I.” Eventually, she grew so frustrated that she simply turned and walked away, visibly upset. “J.” turned to me embarrassed as his friend, “M.” walked over to join us. “I feel bad,” “J.” admitted; “I didn’t mean to upset her. But they really did that, in Argentina! You can look it up!”
I pressed him to think about where he had heard that information, how he had verified it, and about some of the points “J.” had been trying to make. We fell into talking about borders, immigration, and politics. I mentioned a teacher from New York city, who had visited the plaza and shared stories of ICE agents coming to their high school to look for students, or mothers picking up their kids. “M.” spoke about fear, and the ways we oppress ourselves. And then we I saw “I.”, walking determinedly back across the plaza towards us.
“I’m sorry, but I had to say this,” she interjected at “J.”s shoulder, as he turned, “Argentina has the largest Jewish population in South America, largely because they opened their doors to refugees fleeing the war.” “J.” admitted that he
was surprised to learn that, and apologized for earlier. There were many apologies, in fact, passed around the group as we “talked about talking about these things,” one of those odd
meta-conversations that people tend to use to ease through difficult subjects. There was more time to explain what was meant, and what was felt, and room for those things to coexist.
“It’s hard to talk about these things,” “M.” admitted, to a chorus of nods, “and to do it out in the open like this. In the middle of the plaza.”
“And especially to do it with strangers,” someone added.
“Yeah, it’s very strange.” We shared a laugh, and then a long pause.
We shook hands, and kept talking, splitting off and chasing different topics to and fro. “I feel like my mind is being opened to a lot lately,” I overheard John tell Ivana at one point, as we had split into separate discussions. Eventually Maurice had to go, and we all seized the chance for a break, shaking h
ands and saying goodbye. “I’m sorry, I just had to come back,” Ivana offered once more. “I’m glad you did,” John said, and they shook hands once more and parted.
تبادل means “exchange;” combined with words like آراء or ثقافات it becomes a dialogue, a sharing of ideas, viewpoints, etc. But perhaps just “exchange” is really more useful to us, as “dialogue” sometimes can feel like too low and too high a bar simultaneously. “I mean, even this isn’t really a conversation,” Maurice explained at one point; we knew very little about each other, about where we were came from or what we stood for. We were touching on many hard topics, without the time or context to go too deep.
When I was first hired as a project assistant, I wondered what kind of conversations I would be having on the plaza—wondered what kind of conversations I should be trying to facilitate. There is a kind of tension between wanting to document people’s viewpoints and wanting to inform a discussion; people often don’t feel comfortable speaking freely if they feel that you want them to ‘learn’ something or to support a particular agenda. And yet, if our ideas pass each other without making contact or being challenged and changed, it feels like a wasted opportunity.
What happened on the plaza that day may not have been a proper dialogue, but as far as I’m concerned, it was a good start. Not every discussion on immigration, race, and heritage needs to be the General Assembly at the UN. Instead, if a few strangers in a large plaza can trade a few thoughts and perspectives, and each walk away with something new, then perhaps they have made their next difficult conversation just a little more possible.
Yannick Trapman-O’Brien | Project Assistant, An Immigrant Alphabet, Nov. / Dec. 2017