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Arts & Life

For Refugees Who've Made New Homes In Kansas City, Quilts Are A Universal Language

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Julie Denesha
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KCUR 89.3
A refugee from Ethiopia named Birtukan (KCUR is withholding her full name due to safety concerns) prepares to set color transfer into the fabric of a wedding photograph for a quilt that will tell of her journey to America.

A Sudanese woman gathered her six grandchildren to explain the family’s 1996 escape to Ethiopia from war-torn Sudan. The children had not yet been born when a bomb hit the village and the grandmother and her own children fled.

The family literally ran night after night, sleeping in bushes during the day to escape fighters’ notice. In 1997, they reached Ethiopia and settled in a refugee camp where they lived until immigrating to the United States a year ago. An international agency assigned them to Kansas City.

This woman wanted her grandchildren to know the family’s story as they grow up so far from the strife of their homeland, says Ann Say, director of education at the Kansas City non-profit Once We Were Refugees. But this grandmother cannot read or write in any language, and her English is poor. (KCUR is not using the woman's name because she fears for the safety of her family members still in Sudan.)

So she told it in a quilt. It's one of several that will go on display for a month starting on Friday at Metropolitan Community College’s Carter Art Center.

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Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
A woman from Sudan learned how to sew in a class at the non-profit Once We Were Refugees, and told her family's story in a quilt so her grandchildren would know their history.

Besides offering local refugees the opportunity to create story quilts, Say's organization also teaches rudimentary and intermediate sewing classes, where students can create items such as placemats and napkins and some items of clothing. And her husband coordinates a computer class.

No English is required for the sewing courses. So regardless of language capabilities, every participant has the chance to tell his or her story while learning to sew. Since the class started in 2016, each of its 58 graduates has made a story quilt.

Many of those will join the one describing the grandmother's story above, along with the art of Sandra Van Tuyl and the photography of KCUR's Julie Denesha.

Van Tuyl, who aside from being an artist works for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, notes that the world is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. As of last year, 65.6 million people were displaced; of those, 22.5 million are refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

At the same time, immigration to the United States has dropped dramatically since President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting travel into the U.S. from Muslim-majority nations. Say recalls that she and her husband used to make weekly trips to the Kansas City International Airport to greet newcomers, but now such trips are rare; in September no one came at all.

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Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Ann Say (right) with Tasillia, a refugee from South Sudan, who is working on a quilt in a sewing class Say conducts at Kansas City's Della Lamb Community Services.

Say's sewing students are primarily from 13 nations, including Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and South Sudan. Upon graduating from the nine-week course (which is limited by volunteer capacity to 10 students), each person keeps the donated sewing machine he or she learned on, and also receives an ironing board, new scissors, and fabric.

Students often depart with a job as well. Restoration Apparel, a local maker of juvenile athletic ware, staffs almost exclusively with graduates of Say’s course.

Say also sells her students’ placemats, napkins, microwave bowls, and crocheted “mug rugs” – made in and outside of class – when she speaks to other organizations about refugees. All of the proceeds go to the items’ creators.

She recalls the first time a 60-year-old Somalian woman sold a placemat set. The woman’s son called Say to tell her his mother had cried when she saw the money.

“My mother’s whole self-esteem has changed,” the man said. “She has never in her life made a single dollar. She said to me, ‘I never knew that I would ever make anything that was worth anything.’”

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Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Photographs by Julie Denesha are flanked by artwork by Sandra Van Tuyl in '1,000 Footsteps Tell The Story' at the Carter Art Center.

The exhibition of quilts also has a strong educational component. In programs throughout the month of February, nine guest speakers will touch on topics such as refugee employment programs, migrant farm workers, and refugee health care.

Van Tuyl says those conversations about health care are vitally important.

“People are making their homes in the worst possible positions in the world and staying there for 12 years, and having their babies there without medical care,” she explains, adding that some refugees have never seen doctors.

She hopes high school classes will visit the exhibition so that Kansas City’s young people can see a perspective from beyond their daily lives.

“If one kid says, "Hey, I want to help,' and plugs in somehow, we’ve done our job,” Van Tuyl says. “We’ve just informed them. That’s the first thing. And secondly, we’ve just made them advocates in the world.”

1,000 Footsteps Tell the Story opens with a reception from 5-8 p.m. Friday, February 2 at the Carter Art Center MCC-Penn Valley, 3201 Southwest Trafficway, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111. Speaker programs continue throughout February, and the exhibition closes on March 8.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

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