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July 01, 2023

Artolution brings refugee youth art to Capitol Hill

In honor of World Refugee Day, ten works of art created by Rohingya and South Sudanese refugee children and youth were exhibited in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Titled “Artistic Expression,” the exhibit featured raw and authentic expressions of the refugee experience and provided a unique platform for refugee artists to engage in cross-cultural dialogue — many of the works are co-created, having traveled between Bangladesh and Uganda allowing the artists to work on partially completed paintings and add their own artistic contributions.

(From left to right: Aishah Hasnie, Suzanne Ehlers, Yusra Mardini and Matt Reynolds)

Curated by Artolution, a non-profit organization that seeks to strengthen communities experiencing crisis through collaborative art-making, the exhibit is a powerful reminder not only of the global refugee crisis but also of the everyday lived experience of refugees — many of the pieces feature elements found in refugee camps, such as plastic tent sheeting used as a canvass. 

For Joel Bergner, co-founder and CEO of Artolution, the collaborative art process produces much more than a thoughtful painting. “What we do is focus on using the arts for the purpose of mental health, psychosocial support and livelihoods,” said Bergner. “So really, we’re making a social impact with collaborative art.”

Artolution works to identify, train and support local teaching artists in refugee and forcibly displaced communities to facilitate collaborative and educational arts programming that seeks long-term positive social impact. Artolution has programs around the world including in Jordan, Colombia, Bangladesh and Uganda.

Visual art also helps break down communication and language barriers, providing refugees with a more accessible way to express themselves. “When [refugees] can't express themselves in a certain language, but they can do that through the art, you can really get a better understanding of what they're going through, what their needs are and what their vision is for their future,” shared Michele Dastin-Van Rijn (pictured above), Board Chair, Artolution.

The exhibit closed on World Refugee Day with a Congressional reception hosted by UNHCR and co-sponsored by USA for UNHCR, Refugee Council USA and Interaction. The event featured UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, Olympian and former refugee Yusra Mardini, as well as U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, the former President of Colombia, Ivan Duque among others.

Set against the backdrop of the rotunda’s stone and marble, the colorful art compelled people passing through to stop and take notice. “To walk around and to see the resilience and the color, to see some of the heartache and despair that's reflected in the art… that story of humanity comes through so powerfully,” shared Suzanne Ehlers, Executive Director and CEO of USA for UNHCR.

USA for UNHCR was proud to partner with UNHCR and Artolution on the event and looks forward to future collaborations to celebrate the talent and creativity of refugee artists around the world.

How to help…

By becoming a monthly donor for USA for UNHCR you can make a difference in the lives of refugees around the world. Your support will help provide the education and resources that refugees need to achieve their dreams and build a better future for themselves and their communities.