Stand on the corner of 7th and Dudley streets, and you’re in South Philly. But step inside a storefront on the southeast corner, and you’re immersed in a colorful space that reflects the Bhutanese and Burmese refugees who have, through difficult and improbable journeys, found themselves in this corner of the city.
It is a long way from Southeast Asia to Southeast Philadelphia. But this small storefront is part of a collaborative art project aiming to help ease the transition for refugees and offer creative opportunities to work through their experiences of displacement, conflict, and loss.
Southeast by Southeast
is a joint-venture project of the Mural Arts Program, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services
, the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative
, and the Hummingbird Foundation. It’s sort of public art meets community art therapy.
The mission of Southeast by Southeast is to “use art as a catalyst to give refugee populations an opportunity to tell their story,” said Mural Arts project manager Will Pace when we met with artists Shira Walinsky and Miriam Singer in the storefront this fall.
Southeast by Southeast is a heavily process-oriented arts project where public art is only one of the intended outcomes. The overarching goal is to use creative expression to answer some of the unmet mental health needs of these refugees, many of whom were not well-served by more traditional mental health systems, according to Melissa Fogg of the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative (part of Lutheran Children and Family Services).
The project may seem a bit unconventional as therapy, but Fogg says it is a big help to the participating refugees. “They’re starting to tell their stories, starting to get out of a victim mentality, and beginning to share their culture,” she said.
Through Southeast by Southeast refugees had a platform to express aspects of their culture, by participating in print making workshops, weaving and cooking demonstrations, and traditional dance performances. And while an art project itself won’t erase the traumatic ethnic conflict that many refugees experienced, the process can help people start to heal.
"It's not only the art making process, which is big, but people’s interaction in the process." Walinsky explained. "Because this project is connected to mental health, it’s also about the idea of getting people out, and having opportunities for people make art or to dance, because that makes them feel good."