Original article by Dr. Loustaunau, adapted for the Patch by Ascentria
Two years ago, seven teen refugees from Ascentria Care Alliance's Unaccompanied Minors Program (URM) partnered with Assumption College students to produce photographs of their lives in Worcester.
Led by Dr. Esteban Loustaunau, a Spanish professor at Assumption College, the project, "Imaginarte: Views by Refugee Minors in Worcester" sought to explore the teens' journey, sense of place, cultural reinvention and life meaning. It has since appeared in colleges, churches and cafes around the Worcester area.
These teens fled their Central American home countries to escape violence, persecution and even death. The trauma from those experiences often lingers beyond their arrival in the United States, especially if left unresolved. Art, including photography, is an age-old method for working through that trauma.
This project, and others like it, is particularly important in our present day immigration conversation as the Trump administration increases deportations, reduces refugee admission rates and ends programs like DACA.
In countless ways, America depends on new Americans. We need refugees and immigrants in greater numbers if our economy is going to continue to grow and generate the wealth needed to finance defense, the national debt, Social Security, and other commitments.
Especially in New England, new Americans help drive the economy, enhance the culture, and become part of the fabric of our local communities.
Moving Beyond Fear
In an article published in April, 2019, Dr. Loustaunau discusses what he observed and found during the Imaginarte project, including how projects like it can be used to combat anti-immigration sentiments and the degradation of human value.
The degradation of human value can be caused by a fear of the unknown and the threat of losing control over resources and privileges. This fear of losing control—of jobs, opportunities, security, a particular way of life—can lead to dehumanizing actions against immigrants, said Dr. Loustaunau in his article.
"How can we move beyond this divisive fear? I pose this recurring question to my college students in community service learning courses and Imaginarte, especially, providing a space for college students and young teens to discuss possible answers to this question. In viewing and listening to each other's stories, the teen photographers showed that the way to resist human degradation and "othering" is by telling and sharing our own stories of belonging," he said.
"For the teens at the URM Program at Ascentria, remembering positive experiences of family and daily life in their home countries was just as important a survival skill as learning to speak English and adapting to a new culture and life in the United States. The teens taught us that, despite the differences in the rhythms of life, time is the same in the United States as it is in their homelands: the time they spend here flows simultaneously with the time of their loved ones back home. This basic realization enables a few of the teens to remain connected to their mothers, siblings, and even schoolteachers, and to feel safe enough to lose their fear of marginalization."
"Imaginarte became more than a literacy project; it was an intervention based on the recognition of our shared humanity that helped create a space for dialogue, inclusion, and belonging." - Dr. Loustaunau
In fall of 2017, the start of the project, the photographers were between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Today, five of the seven teens are still at risk of deportation, as they have not yet received full refugee status.
Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the project participants.
"Sara" was a seventeen-year-old teenager from Michoacán, Mexico, at fifteen she crossed the southern border with her baby in arms. During the launch of this project she and her daughter had been living in Worcester for two years.
Today, Sara is a student at the New Citizens Center, a Worcester Public School that welcomes new refugees and immigrants.
"Sara told us how she finds inspiration in her young daughter, who fills her with love and joy every day. An avid cook, Sara would like to open a restaurant some day," Dr. Loustaunau said.
Originally from Guatemala,"Elena," was eighteen years old and a junior in high school during the project. She was the only teenager with refugee status at the time and has been living in Worcester for the past four years and attending college.
"I first met Elena four years ago. Over time, I've learned that she had grown up facing constant displacement between Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. Because of her many migrations, Elena speaks seven different Maya languages and started learning Spanish only when she moved between shelters across Mexico and the United States,"Dr. Loustaunau said in his article.
Elena now speaks English beautifully. She loves to volunteer, work out, and cook. On the weekends, Elena volunteers at a homeless shelter and attends church with her foster family... In the future, she would like to study pharmacology, Dr. Loustaunau said.
"Esperanza" grew up in El Quiché, Guatemala and had arrived in Worcester one month before the start of the photography project.
Esperanza often spoke about how much she missed her mother. She would say how much she admired her mother because she gave her life and because she was a strong and faithful woman who never gave up, Dr. Loustaunau said.
"What we found so striking about Esperanza's process of self-discovery was the close ties that she continued to form with her mother even though they could not be with each other at the present time. The memory of her mother's faithfulness empowers Esperanza to do well in school, belong to a faith community, and imagine a future for herself," he said.
Sixteen-year-old "Clara," a refugee from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, had also been living in Worcester for only one month prior to the beginning of the project. She is also a student at the New Citizens Center and enjoys reading the Bible and watching TV.
"Two people who inspire Clara are her sister and her foster mother. In the future, she wants to study and earn an education so that she can work and support her family that is still living in Guatemala." Dr. Loustaunau said.
"Sofía," from Suchitepequez, Guatemala, was fourteen-years-old during the project. She took a picture of Worcester City Hall's clock as a symbol of the simultaneity of time between the United States and her home.
All of the participants photos included a caption; in hers, Sofía wrote, "Time does not stop. The minutes and seconds are the same wherever you are. One learns to grow with time spent living daily life. Then one goes on learning from life's experiences and maybe one's life changes, but time never stops, it is always in motion."
For "Alicia," a photo of the sky in early winter became a sign of life's "beauty, immensity, and infinity." A girl of strong faith, Alicia, a seventeen-year-old from El Salvador, discovered the power of God in nature, said Dr. Loustaunau.
Finally, "Gabriela," a seventeen-year-old girl who had lived in Worcester for a year and a half before the project, found inspiration in a body of water, Dr. Loustaunau said.
She wrote, "Like water, sometimes we are murky and sometimes we are clear. When things happen in your life, Jesus is with you. He is always there. He is a friend, a brother, and a family who helps you in difficult times. Before, I didn't believe in anything but after leaving my country, I now realize that I didn't do it alone. Jesus was there along the way supporting me. He continues to help me and with Him by my side, I will continue moving forward."
"Imaginarte: Unaccompanied refugee minors tell their stories of belonging through photograph" is available via Latino Studies. For more information on Ascentria's Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program and how you can help refugee and migrant youth, click here.
Acknowledgements from Dr. Loustaunau: Many thanks to all the teenagers who belong to the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, and to the staff at Ascentria Care Alliance who participated in this project: Kristen Simmarano, Rebecca Petty, and LiSandra Rodríguez. Special thanks also to the Assumption College students, faculty, and staff who contributed to this project and exhibition, particularly Marissa Dakin, Joan O'Rourke and professors Mike Land and Lynn Simmons.