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Student Refugees Declare 'We Are Here' in New Art Exhibition

From Hungary closing its borders to fleeing Syrians or talk of building a wall between the US and Mexico, it’s sometimes hard to find any good news about refugees and their stories.

A new art project in Milwaukee, called We Are Here, hopes to show and tell the stories of local high school students who are also refugees.

The exhibit was organized by Know Thyself, and the artistic mentoring came from Milwaukee-based photographer Paul Calhoun and painter James Tomasello.

Credit Know Thyself /
Photographer Paul Calhoun captures refugee students at Pulaski High School on film for the "We Are Here" exhibition.

As a long time supporter and partner of Know Thyself, Calhoun was eager to create a project that would help all students become positive contributors to their school and community.

"I thought that it would be interesting to try to develop a project that would not only produce an exhibition, but help students develop skills such as writing or painting and photography," he explains.

Approximately 50 student refugees from Milwaukee High School of the Arts and Pulaski High School have created paintings, as well as written and oral stories of their life experiences as refugees.

Included in the exhibition are three giant mosaics made up of tiles that are mini-murals painted by students sharing their story. The students are originally from Myanmar, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia as well as many other counties.

"We’re working with basically self-portraits – helping these kids identify themselves and express what it means to be in America and express where they came from," says Tomasello.

Both Calhoun and Tomasello say they have really enjoyed the experience of working with refugee students because they have already faced so many challenges, yet continue to stay positive.

Credit Know Thyself /
James Tomasello works with a student to create background stripes on his tile. Each refugee student is making a tile as a pictorial representation of their experiences as a refugee settling in Milwaukee.

"They need to learn in four years to speak English and many of them aspire to go to college...They not only feel responsible for themselves, but also for their parents - many of whom will never be able to speak English, and they're going to have to support them," explains Calhoun. "I think they take school perhaps a little more seriously than a lot of students who are used to the kinds of things that they've always had throughout their life."

Milwaukee High School of the Arts student Desire Mukucha was born in the Congo, lived in Tanzania for twelve years and came to Milwaukee in 2012.

Mukucha was homesick at first, but says he was determined to learn English and integrate into American life and school. He also notes that the atmosphere at MHSA is very welcoming and filled with diversity - something that is not reflected on the news regarding refugees.

"I feel bad, but at the same time I feel like the people who talk about refugees just don't know what they're going through," says Mukucha.

He hopes that the art exhibit will be able to help others understand what students like him have gone through, and more importantly how they want to be seen.

The multi-media exhibit, We Are Here, opened at Milwaukee High School of the Arts this past Friday and will be on display through early June.

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.