Art by local refugee youth explores "sanctuary"

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Maisa Ibrahim, 8, originally from South Sudan, poses with her art at the "Sanctuary" exhibition at Baltimore City Hall.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, children's giggles and joyful squeals echoed through the corridors of City Hall. The Moravia Park Elementary School students on the tour were some of the local refugee youth whose art is on display there through the end of the month as part of "Sanctuary," an exhibition that explores identity and home.

While some of the sanctuaries in the exhibit look like colorful houses, others resemble intergalactic spaceships crafted from cardboard and paint. The walls of City Hall's North Courtyard Gallery are also covered with silhouette self-portraits filled by elaborate shapes, words and bright colors.


Nine-year-old Rana Wahedaldeen's sanctuary is a pink art-deco style building. "This is what I like to think about," she said as she pointed at her design with pride. "I chose peace, a place where I can relax."

Rana, who's from Iraq, is one of the 20 students from several schools who participated in the initiative led by the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project.* The project, which serves about 300 refugee youth from at least 17 countries, aims to make the integration process easier and assist refugees academically as they attempt to navigate and understand American culture.


Twice a week between October and May, the children were taught about the relationships between color and textiles by Ben Hamburger, 27, a Master of Fine Arts student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Rather than give them strict instructions, he offered guidance and allowed them to creatively interpret for themselves what home and identity meant.

"Most of them were able to think back on their home countries in really positive ways and acknowledge where they are right now can be a home and sanctuary space," he said. "They recognize they can have dual identities."

Between 2010 and 2014, 6,716 refugees entered Maryland, with 43 percent of them resettling in Baltimore City, according to the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees. Rana arrived in Baltimore with her mother and two brothers in 2013; her siblings' work is also featured in the exhibit.

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Her mother, Bushra Wahedaldeen, 43, stood to the side wearing a hijab with jeans. Slightly fatigued from fasting for Ramadan, she said she was in awe of the art project and the fact her children's work is in City Hall.

"I like it. I don't believe my kids could do that," she said.

As Maisa Ibrahim, 8, hurried through City Hall, the pink beads attached to her braids clacked and swung. Since pink is her favorite color, she said picking a color for her house wasn't difficult. Still, she had to learn some tough and practical lessons about how to paint.

"If you want to mix up the paint, you've got to put it in the water. Always be careful with the paintbrush," she advised.

Despite their work debuting in City Hall, it wasn't enough to convince all the students a career as an artist was the next step. Mohanet Ibrahim, 10, who's originally from South Sudan, said he liked learning how to use cardboard but thought it was best he become a doctor when he grows up.


"Here, you've got to learn and go to university. You can be anything you want," he said.

*Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Rana Wahedaldeen's native country. Her family is from Iraq. The Sun regrets the error.