A few times in week in the Frank Porter Graham Elementary School outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a small group of Burmese children gather for classes in Art with Kristin Lintin. Working with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Raleigh, the Art Therapy Institute of North Carolina www.ncati.org is helping these children, many of whom grew up in refugee camps and just recently arrived in America, to express their hopes, dreams, fears and past experiences.
The country of Burma, known as Myanmar since 1989, has a long and fractious history. From 1886 until 1948, it was under the colonial power of England, and governed through India. It achieved independence in 1947 and elected Aung San as its leader, but he was quickly assassinated. In 1962, the country fell under the military rule of General Ne Win, who drove the nation into poverty and began the systematic persecution of the minority Karen group, and other “resident aliens” who are not recognized by the government as legitimate citizens.
Today the country is still under military dictatorship, ethnic cleansing is still accounting for almost 10,000 deaths a year (for the past 40 years) and the legitimately elected Aung San Suu Kyi, granddaughter of the original leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, remains under house arrest since 1989.
The majority of the refugees in the Chapel Hill area are Karen Burmese, who were driven out of their country into squalid, overpopulated camps on the border of Thailand. Since 2005, the U.S. has allowed the influx of about 2,000 Burmese refugees annually, and the children arriving in Chapel Hill often speak no English, have little formal schooling, and have suffered major trauma.
“But the great news is, they are really incredibly resilient, happy kids who are respectful, hard-working, curious and grateful to be here,” says Kristin. “We’re using art therapy to help them nonverbally communicate, build friendships, and safely express their feelings. Because they’ve been through so much, art therapy is a wonderful way to reach these children and help prepare them to be successful here.”
My $100 will fund another class of Art Therapy for Burmese refugee children. After living stateless, hopeless and in despair, they’ve more than earned it.