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Art Classes Aim to Help Child Refugees Tell Their Own Stories

September 14, 1989|RICHARD ESPOSITO | Es posito is a Los Angeles-based free-lance journalist.

Spurred by a current photo exhibit dealing with the plight of the world's refugees, Los Angeles city schools are using art and classroom discussion sessions to reach out to refugees among elementary and junior high school students.

A school curriculum, which was developed in anticipation of a Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery photo exhibit about refugees, helps Los Angeles Unified School District's mostly Latino refugee students tell their own stories.

Classroom discussions are conducted in the native language of English-as-second-language students whenever possible. In addition, art is used as a universal language through which students express both happy memories of loved ones at home and horrible images of repression and war.

Students as young as the third grade can grasp the curriculum's concepts of human rights, according to Alex Zaragoza, multicultural coordinator for the Municipal Gallery. He developed the curriculum along with Dr. Debbie Andorka-Aceves, a school district psychologist.

"I opened with a discussion of what is right and wrong to do to people. In no time I had them talking about things in Armenia, El Salvador, and how police would come and pull people out of their homes," Zaragoza said of his contacts with the children during development of the curriculum.

While not always unpleasant, "sometimes (the students' art) is depressing. We had a little Salvadoran boy draw his mom and dad tied to a tree because that was how soldiers killed them," Zaragoza said.

Many of the children seem like "normal students on the outside, but a lot of times they've covered up and don't want people to know they've been through hell," said Lila Silvern, the district's coordinator of Emergency Immigrant Education Assistance Program activities. She said that about 61,000 students were identified as either immigrants or refugees when a count was last taken in March. Already about 500 students in summer and inter-session classes have participated in the program, Silvern added. The district has a $3.9-million federal grant to fund this and related activities for the 1989-90 school year.

The exercises have benefited the refugee students as well as the teachers and classmates who must understand them and help them adjust to a new home, Silvern said.

"You can't just tear the kids out of one culture and put them in another," Silvern said. "You have to give them the chance to make the transition. . . . They want you to see their country was a beautiful place. They need time to talk about themselves and their country."

The works produced by the local students will be on display through October in an exhibit titled "Hopes: Past, Present, Future; Paintings and Drawings by Immigrant Refugee Children" at the city's Junior Art Center. From Oct. 2, selected works will be on display at the Los Angeles Children's Museum.

Now through Nov. 5, the exhibit that inspired the curriculum will be on view at the Municipal Art Gallery, in Barnsdall Park, 4804 Hollywood Blvd. Titled "Forced Out: The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time," the exhibit includes texts and photos by dozens of photographers--including 10 from the Los Angeles area.

For information on all exhibits, call the Municipal Gallery at (213) 485-4581.

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