Kids use art to take a global stand

Refugee Youth Project participants draw messages of hope for children in war-torn Sudan


Despite being only 8 years old, standing less than 5 feet tall and speaking in a voice little above a whisper, Christiane Mushagasha's message was loud and clear: Send help to parts of war-torn Africa.

She was one of 57 refugee children from different countries -- now living in Baltimore -- who gathered yesterday in a small Johns Hopkins University classroom in the Mattin Center and used crayons to draw pictures of hope and a better life. Some -- like Christiane, a native of the Congo -- also incorporated words to convey their message.

Their artwork will be bound in a book and given to lawmakers in Washington this week as part of a series of events focused on the Darfur region of Sudan, where an estimated 400,000 people have been killed as a result of civil unrest in the country since February 2003. An additional 2.5 million have been left homeless by the violence, according to Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, an organization that has 500 chapters on college campuses across the country.

Both the children in a Sudanese refugee camp and those at the event yesterday were asked to draw pictures of their lives. The results were strikingly different. Patrice Hutton, an executive committee member for STAND, said it was important for the children to draw positive images.

"We wanted to contrast with other pictures taken from the Sudan," said Hutton, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins.

Christiane's contribution, which took her less than 20 minutes to complete, depicted a smiling teacher standing outside of a school. She drew the image to contrast with one made by a boy in a Sudanese refugee camp illustrating a burned-down school.

Christiane's drawing was also accompanied by a letter that read: "Dear President, I want everybody in the world to have fun. But people in Africa are poor. Could you send money to help them come to the USA, go to school and have a wonderful life? Everybody needs a wonderful life."

Christiane, a third-grader at Highlandtown Elementary No. 215, said she drew the picture to help children in Africa. "The school burned down, and they need to learn," she said.

Yesterday, one child drew a picture of himself giving books to smaller children, another drew a picture of himself teaching other students to read, and one Sudanese girl drew a Christmas tree representing her family's first Christmas in the United States.

"This is a beautiful venture," said Olufisayo Ositelu, one of 20 adult volunteers at yesterday's event. "As kids, they have a huge reservoir of creativeness. Some can't express themselves fully through words. Art and color is really good to see their voices."

The children and nine of the volunteers were members of the Refugee Youth Project, which is a Baltimore-based tutoring and enrichment program for refugee children.

The remaining volunteers were members of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, an organization that has 500 chapters on college campuses across the country.

Nina Blanas, director of the Refugee Youth Project, said allowing the children to share their artwork with lawmakers will make a difference.

"This is what everyone in the world should have," Blanas said. "We're going to walk into D.C. and say, `This is what we want for the whole country.'"

Yesterday's activity was an important step in the healing process, Ositelu said.

"These kids have gone through a lot," said the Johns Hopkins junior, who is a tutor with the Refugee Youth Project. Joel Mushagasha, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Highlandtown Elementary No. 215, wrote a letter in orange crayon stating how much he loved living in America because of the educational opportunities.

"Some parts of my country can not go to school," the Congo native said. "If you have an education, you can be a doctor, lawyer, and earn good money."

Joel said he wants to be a lawyer and eventually serve on the Supreme Court so that he can make laws that are fair for all people.

The children made the most of their blank sheets of paper and sets of crayons.

Bakhita Emmanuel, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Moravia Park Pre K-8 Campus, produced three colorful works of art, including a detailed picture of her old grass roof home in the Sudan.

Bakhita said she missed her old home.

"It's beautiful," she said.

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